The former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia was sentenced Thursday to 21 months in a federal prison for conspiring to cover up mine safety violations before the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
Gary May, 43, of Bloomingrose, W.Va., had faced up to five years in prison on a felony charge that he conspired to impede the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement efforts at the mine between February 2008 and the fatal explosion on April 5, 2010. He pleaded guilty in March 2012 and cooperated with the investigation into the tragedy, the nation’s worst mine disaster in four decades.
Three separate investigations concluded the disaster was preventable but occurred because then-mine owner Massey Energy routinely circumvented numerous federally mandated safety requirements in order to reap higher profits.
May, the highest-ranking Massey official to be sentenced thus far, began working at Upper Big Branch as a foreman in February 2008 and became mine superintendent in October 2009. He admitted that he and others conspired to impede MSHA in administering and enforcing mine health and safety laws at Upper Big Branch mine.
May said he gave advance warning of MSHA inspections, often using code phrases to avoid detection. He admitted that when he knew inspections were imminent, he concealed health and safety violations such as poor airflow in the mine; piles of loose, combustible coal; and scarcities of rock dust, which prevents mine explosions. Furthermore, he acknowledged that he ordered the falsification of a mine examination book and told miners to rewire the methane gas detector on a piece of mine equipment so it could run illegally.
Separate investigations by MSHA, the United Mine Workers of America and an independent panel appointed by former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin concluded that the fatal blast occurred because Massey let highly explosive methane gas and coal dust accumulate inside Upper Big Branch, and that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited the combustible materials. Because water sprayers were broken and clogged, what should have been a mere flare-up erupted into a deadly inferno that ripped through miles of underground tunnels, killing the men.
In addition to imposing the prison sentence in Beckley, W.Va., U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger ordered May to pay a $20,000 fine and sentenced him to three years of supervised release. In sentencing May, she emphasized that his actions risked catastrophic consequences and that mine business interests cannot be put ahead of mine safety laws.
“With this sentence, Judge Berger took the opportunity to send a powerful message to this mine manager and other mine managers who would put profits over safety: If you violate mine laws and put miners at risk you will go to jail,” said Booth Goodwin II, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.
Several other officials have been charged in the investigation of the mine tragedy. The highest-ranking among them is David Hughart, former president of Massey’s Green Valley Resource Group, who was charged in November with violating mine safety laws and conspiring to impede inspectors. Like May, he has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate in the continuing criminal probe by the FBI and the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General.
The former security chief at the mine, Hughie Stover, was sentenced in February to three years in federal prison for lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy documents following the fatal blast. Former mine foreman Thomas Harrah pleaded guilty in October 2011 to making false statements and was sentenced to 10 months in prison.