W.Va. mine boss charged with fraud in deadly blast

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - The superintendent of the West Virginia
coal mine where an explosion killed 29 men was charged Wednesday with conspiracy to defraud the federal government, becoming the highest-ranking employee to face criminal prosecution in an investigation that appeared to be moving steadily up the corporate ladder.

Former Upper Big Branch mine boss Gary May, 43, of Bloomingrose,
W.Va., is named in a federal information, a document that signals a
defendant is cooperating with prosecutors. He is the second
employee of Massey Energy, the company that owned the mine at the
time of the 2010 tragedy, to face prosecution.

Reached at his home Wednesday morning, May declined comment. A conviction on the federal fraud charge could result in fines and up
to five years in prison.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his investigation of the worst
U.S. mine disaster in four decades is "absolutely not" finished,
signaling that officials are now exploring possible criminal
charges against even higher-level executives of the company.
Goodwin did not immediately comment further.

Although other mine disasters have led to criminal charges,
they've typically targeted low-ranking employees and have largely
been misdemeanor offenses.

"Usually, they get the mine foreman because that's the person
that signs the books," said Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne
died in the explosion. Superintendents are usually shielded, he
added.

But Quarles said the charge announced Wednesday suggest
prosecutors are looking at May's bosses, too.

"It's about time," he said. "It's a good start."

Last week, Goodwin urged a federal judge in Beckley to make an
example of the only other person charged so far, former security
chief Hughie Elbert Stover. Goodwin is demanding the maximum
possible sentence of 25 years in prison for actions he says
contributed to the April 2010 disaster near Montcoal.

Stover is to be sentenced Feb. 29 for lying to federal
investigators and attempting to destroy documents.

May began working at Upper Big Branch in February 2008 as a mine
foreman and was promoted in October 2009 to superintendent. He held that post, overseeing three room-and-pillar mining sections and a longwall operation, until the day the mine exploded on April 5,
2010.

The information filed in U.S. District Court in Beckley accuses
May of conspiring with others to conceal many dangers in the mine
through an elaborate scheme that included code words to alert
miners underground when inspectors were on the property, the
deliberate alteration of approved ventilation plans and the
deliberate disabling of a methane gas monitor on the continuous
mining machine.

May allegedly ordered the wiring to be altered in February 2010
so the automatic shut-off mechanism was disabled, allowing the
machine to function for several hours without a methane monitor.

Other employees of the mine have told investigators there was
never enough fresh air to sweep out the highly explosive methane
and coal dust that regularly accumulated - the fuel that three
separate investigations have concluded powered the chain-reaction
blast.

The information also says that when May knew the Mine Safety and
Health Administration was about to sample the level of breathable
coal dust in a section of the mine, he surreptitiously redirected
additional air to that area to obscure the typical conditions.

May is also accused of both falsifying safety inspection books
and ordering someone not named in the information to leave out
reports of deep water that would have made a section of the mine
unsafe.

Clay Mullins worked at Upper Big Branch and lost his brother Rex
in the blast, but didn't cross paths with May.

"It's what we wanted. All the families, it's what they want,"
he said of the charge against the superintendent. "But I want to
see some other names. ... There were a lot of people involved in
this, and I just want to see them be punished for the crimes.

"If they're innocent, then I want them to be found innocent,"
Mullins said. "But if they're guilty, I want them to face the
maximum penalty of law."

The information says Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. and
its managers routinely violated a host of federal mine-safety laws
for fear that violations would cut into production time.

Had MSHA detected the concealed conditions, it would have
resulted in temporary shutdowns and fines. That also could have
moved Massey closer to being designated a pattern violator, which
would have subjected it to even more scrutiny.

Reports about the explosion have already been released by MSHA,
the United Mine Workers of America and an independent panel
appointed by the former governor. The fourth and final report, by
the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, is being
released Thursday.

The first three concluded that Virginia-based Massey Energy -
which has since been bought by Alpha Natural Resources - allowed
methane and coal dust to accumulate, and failed to properly
maintain and repair the cutting equipment that eventually created
the spark that fuel needed to explode.

Clogged and broken water sprayers then allowed what could have
been a minor flare-up to become an epic blast that traveled seven
miles of underground corridors, doubling back on itself and killing
men instantly.

All three reports said the explosion could have been prevented
or contained if the mine had been sufficiently dusted with
pulverized limestone to render the coal dust inert. In the year
before the Upper Big Branch blast, 70 ignitions occurred at U.S.
coal mines, and none resulted in fatalities.

The UMWA report accused Massey of "industrial homicide" for
the way it ran Upper Big Branch and listed 18 employees, including
former Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship, who invoked their
right to avoid self-incrimination and refused to cooperate with
investigators.

May is one of the 18 that the UMWA says should be compelled to
publicly plead their Fifth Amendment rights or be held in contempt
of court.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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