The US Attorney in southern West Virginia yesterday announced that a former superintendent at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine near Montcoal, West Virginia has been charged with conspiracy to thwart government mine safety inspections. The mine was the site of an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners, making it the worst mining disaster in recent history. The mine was owned by Massey Energy, which since the disaster, has been sold to Alpha Natural Resources of Virginia.
According to the charges that were brought against former Big Branch superintendent Gary May, “Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at UBB, in part because of a belief that following those laws would decrease production.”
The US Attorney’s Office charged May with conspiring with others to defraud the US government by interfering with health and safety inspections of the mine. Had these inspections not been hindered, the deadly explosion would likely have been prevented.
May is accused of among other things falsifying safety reports, using code words to alert mine foremen of unannounced government safety inspections so that they could cover up problems that if detected would cause a delay in production, and temporarily altering ventilation systems to mask safety problems.
The charges against May also said that he ordered the electrical system on mining machines to be altered, so that the machine’s methane gas detecting equipment, which causes the machine to shut down when excessive amounts of methane are detected, would not work properly.
State and federal investigations as well as an investigation carried out by the United Mine Workers of America agreed that the main cause of the explosion was an excessive build up of methane gas, a natural by-product of a mining operation. Federal safety regulations require that operating mines have adequate ventilation systems to keep methane gas accumulation at safe levels. They also require mining companies to conduct frequent dusting of mine surfaces with a chemical called rock dust to damp down methane levels and to have and maintain properly functioning safety equipment like gas detectors on the mining machines.
The conspiracy charges suggest that the US Attorney will be charging others. US Attorney Booth Goodwin did not confirm it, but it appears that prosecutors have reached a plea bargain with May, who faces a maximum of five years if convicted. If that is the case, then it is possible that May has agreed to testify against others who may have been more responsible for the explosion.
May, so far, is the highest level UBB official to be charged with wrong doing. A foreman received a ten-month sentence for lying about his foreman certification, and a security officer faces up to 25 years in prison after being convicted of lying to federal inspectors investigating the explosion and destroying evidence.
May reported to executives of the Performance Coal Company, which at the time was a subsidiary of Massey Energy. They in turn reported to executives of Massey Energy, including CEO Don Blakenship.
A UMWA report on the mining disaster, Industrial Homicide, found that production, or to put it another way–profit, was the paramount concern of Blankenship and his executive team and that safety problems reported by workers and foremen were ignored or discounted if fixing the problems would hurt production. According to the report, Blakenship also required local mine executives to send frequent production reports directly to him and to justify any production interruptions.