CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal prosecutors on Thursday asked a judge to schedule a hearing so former Upper Big Branch Mine superintendent Gary May can plead guilty, further confirming that May is cooperating with the ongoing criminal investigation of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby asked for the hearing in a short motion filed with U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in Beckley.
Last month, May was charged with conspiracy to violate mine safety standards and cover up the resulting hazards prior to the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at the Massey Energy operation in Raleigh County.
Prosecutors charged him through a document called an "information," rather than a grand jury indictment, a move that typically means a defendant has reached a plea deal and is cooperating with prosecutors.
May also testified for prosecutors late last month at the sentencing hearing for Hughie Elbert Stover, the former Upper Big Branch security chief. Berger sentenced Stover to three years in prison after his conviction for lying to Upper Big Branch investigators and trying to destroy evidence about Massey's practice of warning underground workers when government inspectors arrive at the mine.
During the Stover sentencing, May testified that he had reached a plea agreement with prosecutors.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin alleged that May plotted "with others known and unknown" to put coal production ahead of worker safety and to conceal the resulting hazards on numerous occasions at Upper Big Branch.
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 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 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. This is required to be reported and then fixed.
May could face up to five years in prison for the one felony charge.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.