The superintendent in charge of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia at the time it exploded, killing 29 workers, was charged Wednesday with conspiracy for his central role in deceiving federal regulators who were trying to carry out safety inspections and impeding their efforts to enforce requirements that could have prevented the disaster.
Gary May, 43, of Bloomingrose, West Virginia, is now the highest-ranking Massey Energy employee to be charged in the deadly explosion, which occurred on April 5, 2010 after mining equipment created a spark that ignited an accumulation of coal dust and methane gas.
Federal prosecutors allege that May and other workers used code phrases such as “I had a hamburger (or cheeseburger) for dinner last night,” and “bringing in a load of blocks,” to send warnings about the safety inspectors and their activities onsite. May also ordered workers to falsify records.
Moreover, prosecutors allege that on one occasion May altered the mine’s ventilation system just before the arrival of federal inspectors in order to make the air appear better in tests than it actually was. They also accuse him of tampering with the mine’s ventilation system in an effort to disengage a methane gas gauge that was supposed to automatically shut off mining equipment before methane levels became dangerous.
If convicted of the conspiracy charge, a felony, May faces a maximum of five years in prison.
Mr. May is the third and highest-ranking mine supervisor to be charged in the blast. Hughie Elbert Stover, the mine’s former security chief, was convicted of lying to federal investigators and attempting to destroy records. Stover faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison when he is sentenced next week.
May’s conspiracy charge indicates that federal prosecutors will go after other Massey Energy workers. According to the New York Times, analysts believe future prosecutions will go upward in the ranks, “getting closer to the executives who ran the company.”
One lawyer familiar with the case told the New York Times that federal prosecutors are “moving up the food chain.”
“This will cause some sleepless nights for people high up in the corporate ladder,” he added.
Investigators from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) concluded that the fatal explosion was “entirely preventable,” and fined its new owner, Alpha, a record $10.8 million in civil penalties. The company also paid an additional $200 million to settle with the victims’ families, several of whom have vowed to keep fighting until Massey execs are imprisoned for their alleged role in the mine explosion.