The former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where an explosion killed 29 workers pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal fraud charge.

Gary May of Bloomingrose, the highest-ranking Massey Energy official charged in connection with the blast, faces up to five years in prison when sentenced Aug. 9.

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May pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in Beckley to conspiracy to defraud the federal government.

May manipulated the mine ventilation system during inspections to fool safety officials and disabled a methane monitor on a cutting machine a few months before the explosion on April 5, 2010, prosecutors said. It wasn’t clear from court papers whether they ever fixed the device.

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The blast was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.

Prosecutors accused Massey of violating safety laws out of a desire to put production and profits first.

Three investigations concluded the company allowed highly explosive methane and coal dust to build up inside the mine, where it ignited from a spark from an improperly maintained piece of cutting equipment. Clogged and broken water sprayers then allowed what could have been just a flare-up to become an epic blast, the investigations found.

The judge asked May describe what happened in relation to the charge.

“When an inspector would show up on the property, I would call up and let them know that an inspector was wanting to come underground,” May said. “It was my intention to let them know that someone was coming.”

Berger also asked May if he acted with anyone else.

“All the station foremen, they would call up periodically, to ask if there were any inspectors,” May replied.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said May’s admission shows the obstruction of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors “was a routine matter at Upper Big Branch.”

An internal review by MSHA concluded federal inspectors either missed problems or failed to examine areas where they existed in the 18 months before the blast. But the review found no evidence those failures caused it.

Last week, though, a team led by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued a report concluding that timely enforcement of existing regulations “would have lessened the chances of — and possibly could have prevented” the explosion.

Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, VA, bought Massey and all its operations, including the Upper Big Branch mine, last summer.

Former Upper Big Branch security chief Hughie Elbert Stover got three years in prison in February for lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy security-related documents. It’s one of the stiffest punishments ever issued in a mine safety case. His attorney, William Wilmoth, is appealing the conviction.

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