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Senior Supervisor Faces Criminal Charges, Accused of Conspiracy in Upper Big Branch Mine Cover-Up

Federal prosecutors have charged Gary May, a former senior mine supervisor with the Upper Big Branch (UBB) Coal Mine in West Virginia, with felony conspiracy. According to the Department of Justice, May’s unlawful and willful actions at UBB, where an explosion in April 2010 killed 29 minters, served to “hamper, hinder, impede and obstruct by trickery, deceit and dishonest means” MSHA’s attempts to enforce federal mine safety regulations at the mine.

According to the charges, filed in the U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia in Beckley by Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven R. Ruby, MSHA mine inspectors issued citations, which penalized mine operators for a violation of mine health and safety laws, but allowed the mine to continue operating. The inspectors also issued orders, which not only penalized the violations, but required the mine or part of the mine to stop operating until the violation was corrected. Federal law prohibits anyone from giving advance notice of an MSHA inspection.

Noting that “mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at UBB, in part because of a belief that following those laws would decrease coal production,” and that “certain kinds of serious citations and orders moved the mine closer to being classified as a mine with a pattern or potential pattern of violations,” federal prosecutors charge that starting in February 2008 and continuing to April 2010, May gave UBB advance notice of MSHA inspections. As a result, operators at the mine would “conceal and cover up violations of mine health and safety laws.”

May also is charged with falsifying examination record books at UBB to omit hazardous conditions, authorized and caused the alteration of the ventilation system in the mine to direct additional air to the area where the inspections were to take place. He also is accused of ordering the electrical wiring in the mine’s methane monitor to be altered to circumvent a federally mandated automatic shut-off mechanism for the continuous mining machine. Inadequate ventilation that allowed explosive dust and methane to build up was determined to be the cause of the explosion.

The wording of the charges, that May was working “together with others known and unknown,” indicate that others will be charged in the case. The charges were filed directly with the U.S. District Court, bypassing a grand jury that normally would indict the accused, leading many to believe that May is cooperating with authorities and that higher-ranking managers and executives at UPP and Massey Energy, which owned the mine at the time of the explosion, will be charged.

May’s is not the first case filed against a UBB employee. Hughie Elbert Stover, the former security chief at UBB, has been charged with lying to investigators and attempting to destroy evidence. On Feb. 14, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin requested a 25-year maximum sentence for Stover, saying: “A sentence consistent with the magnitude of the defendant's conduct and its consequences will send a resounding message: Gambling with coal miners' lives risks the most severe punishment available under the law.”

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