A former superintendent at a West Virginia mine where 29 miners died in a 2010 explosion is going to prison for nearly two years on a federal conspiracy charge.
Gary May received the sentence of 21 months and a $20,000 fine Thursday in federal court in Beckley, WV. May cooperated with prosecutors in their continuing criminal investigation of the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine.
He admitted to charges he defrauded the government through actions such as disabling a methane gas monitor and falsifying records.
A plea hearing will occur next month for former longtime Massey Energy executive David Hughart, who stands accused of two federal conspiracy charges. Hughart’s cooperation could be a sign that authorities may be gathering evidence to target officials further up the Massey hierarchy.
In April 2010, an explosion fueled by methane and coal dust killed 29 men in the southern West Virginia mine. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years, and it led to the retirement of former chief executive Don Blankenship and criminal charges against mine workers.
Four reports on the disaster agree on its mechanics: Massey allowed methane and coal dust to accumulate, and worn and broken cutting equipment created the spark that ignited the fuel. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed a mere flare-up to turn into an inferno that ripped through miles of underground tunnels.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) said the root cause was Massey’s “systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts” to conceal life-threatening problems, noting managers even maintained two sets of pre-shift inspection books — an accurate one for itself, and a fake one for regulators.
They also habitually warned miners underground when an inspector arrived on site, trying to give crews time to make the mine appear safe.