Read the charging document here.
Read more in the Coal Tattoo blog.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In a move up the Upper Big Branch Mine's management ladder, federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged a mine superintendent with conspiracy to violate mine safety laws and cover up dangerous conditions prior to the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin alleges that Massey Energy mine superintendent Gary May plotted "with others known and unknown" to put coal production ahead of worker safety and conceal the resulting hazards on numerous occasions prior to the nation's worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
"Today's charge is a significant step in the investigation of events at the Upper Big Branch mine," Goodwin said in a prepared statement. "Our investigation of those events remains ongoing."
May, 43, of Bloomingrose, is accused of taking part in a scheme to provide advance warning of government inspections and then hide or correct violations before federal agents could make it into working sections of the sprawling Raleigh County mine.
For example, prosecutors allege that May, after learning that federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors were about to sample the level of coal dust in the mine, "surreptitiously redirected" additional fresh air to the area to conceal actual working conditions in the mine.
Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby also allege that May "caused and ordered" the disabling of a methane monitor on a continuous mining machine at Upper Big Branch less than two months before the deadly blast.
Also, May is alleged to have ordered an unnamed person to falsify mine examination records by omitting a hazardous condition -- high water that could endanger workers and interfere with the flow of fresh-air through underground tunnels -- required to be reported and then repaired.
The charges against May were outlined in a 10-page legal filing known as an "information" rather than a grand jury indictment, a move that is usually an indication that the accused is cooperating with prosecutors and has or is expected to reach a plea agreement.
May was charged not under the criminal provisions of the federal Mine Safety and Health Act. Instead, he is accused of taking part in a criminal conspiracy, which is an agreement by two or more people to violate the law. Specifically, he was charged with conspiring to defraud the federal government's mine safety enforcement efforts.
"The objects and purpose of the conspiracy were to hamper, hinder, impede, and obstruct the lawful government functions of the [Department of Labor] and MSHA in the administration and enforcement of mine health and safety laws at UBB," prosecutors said in the charging document.
If convicted, May could face up to five years in prison for the one felony charge.
Goodwin declined to confirm that prosecutors had reached a plea bargain with May, but said charging through an information "typically indicates that an agreement has been reached with the defendant and that's he's cooperating with the government's investigation."
"This action represents the classic prosecutor's strategy: Compile evidence and testimony, then cut a deal with defendants to cooperate and provide further information leading higher in the organization," said Pat McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor who served on a team that conducted an independent probe of Upper Big Branch.
McGinley added that, "The use of conspiracy law to pursue criminal law accountability represents a breakthrough of enormous proportions in deterring the types of outrageous conduct identified by UBB investigators."