CHARLESTON, West Virginia (Reuters) - The former superintendent of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 workers died in a 2010 explosion was charged on Wednesday with felony conspiracy for tipping off employees to safety inspections and concealing dangerous violations, authorities said.
Gary May, 43, of Bloomingrose, West Virginia, is the highest-ranking official at Massey Energy to face criminal charges in the worst accident in the U.S. mining industry in four decades. Massey Energy owned the Upper Big Branch mine at the time of the explosion on April 5, 2010.
“Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at UBB, in part because of a belief that following those laws would decrease coal production,” the charges said.
May is accused of conspiring to impede enforcement efforts by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) at Upper Big Branch for more than two years before the blast, said R. Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, in a statement.
The charges against May and “others known and unknown” were laid out in a criminal information filing, typically used when someone is expected to enter into a plea agreement with prosecutors.
May and others would use code phrases to tip off mine operators to pending inspections by the MSHA, which makes unannounced visits to check for health and safety violations, prosecutors said.
The advance notice was used to “conceal and cover up violations,” the filing said.
The MSHA enforces such safety measures such as adequate ventilation and operation of monitors that measure levels of dangerous methane gas.
Prosecutors also allege May altered a ventilation system to direct additional air to an area where an inspection was to take place, ordered falsification of records to omit mention of a hazardous mine condition, and ordered electrical wiring to be rigged so a piece of mining machinery could operate for several hours without a functioning methane monitor.
If violations had been detected, “the resulting citations and orders could result in coal production being stopped” or could have subjected the mine to closer scrutiny, the filing said.
The charges against May carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
“It’s about time,” Betty Harrah, sister of coal miner Steve Harrah, who died in the explosion, said of the charges. “I hope more of these people are held responsible, soon. Get it done so we can get closure.”
Last year, the head of security at Upper Big Branch was charged with impeding investigators and lying to them, and a former foreman also has been accused of lying to investigators.
Massey has since been acquired by Alpha Natural Resources, which agreed in December to pay $1.5 million to each of the families of the 29 miners who died as part of a $209 million settlement of civil and criminal charges against the company.
In a statement, the company said May, now an employee of an Alpha subsidiary, has been placed on administrative leave.
“Although Alpha was not operator of the mine at the time of the accident, the company supports efforts that will lead to a full understanding of the circumstances that precipitated this tragic event,” Alpha said.
The company’s stock lost 2.7 percent on Wednesday, closing at $19.49 on the New York Stock Exchange.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration released findings last year showing a lack of protective rock dusting, worn drill bits and a small amount of methane gas likely contributed to the deaths of the 29 miners.
The company has said it believes a crack in the mine floor released large amounts of methane and the disaster could not have been prevented.
Additional reporting by Steve James; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Daniel Trotta