A supervisor at the Massey Energy mine in southern West Virginia that suffered a fatal blast in April 2010 that killed 29 workers has pleaded guilty in federal court over related charges.
Gary May, 43, pleaded guilty March 29 in federal court before U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to conspiracy to impede the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement efforts at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine (UBB) between February 2008 and April 5, 2010. UBB was the site of a fatal explosion on April 5, 2010, that killed 29 miners. May was the mine’s superintendent at the time of the explosion.
May faces up to five years’ imprisonment and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced on Aug. 9. In February, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin filed a one-count information against May, charging him with conspiracy to defraud the United States by impeding MSHA in carrying out its lawful functions, which is a felony violation.
“People who run coal mines have a fundamental obligation to be honest with mine regulators,” Goodwin said in a March 29 statement. “When mine operators resort to tricks and deceit to keep government officials in the dark, our mine safety system unravels and miners are put in harm’s way. The least we can do for coal miners is protect the integrity of the laws designed to keep them safe.”
Goodwin added: “I’m pleased that Mr. May is cooperating with our investigation. We hope he can give us a better picture of what was going on at this company.”
Massey Energy, reeling from the financial, regulatory and legal impacts of the UBB blast, was taken over in June 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE:ANR).
May acknowledged giving advance warning of MSHA inspections, often using code phrases to avoid detection. May also admitted to concealing health and safety violations when he knew inspections were imminent. The violations included poor airflow in the mine; piles of loose, combustible coal; and scarcities of rock dust, which prevents mine explosions. May also admitted that he ordered a mine examination book to be falsified. He also said he told miners to rewire the methane gas detector on a piece of mine equipment so the equipment could run illegally.
MSHA head blasts Massey in front of Congress
Massey Energy’s “deceptive and illegal actions” significantly interfered with MSHA’s efforts to police the UBB longwall mine, said MSHA head Joe Main in March 27 testimony in Congress. The UBB blast was the worst U.S. coal mine accident in 40 years and came despite new legislation passed by Congress in 2006 after a rash of fatalities earlier that year. Main was testifying before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
Despite Massey’s deception when it came to MSHA inspections of UBB, “MSHA assumes responsibility for its actions and inactions at UBB and takes the deficiencies and recommendations outlined in the internal review report extremely seriously,” said Main, referring to a recent internal report on how MSHA’s own people handled Upper Big Branch inspections prior to the explosion. “We have already implemented many actions to improve enforcement, and set a timetable for implementing the internal review team’s recommendations. We are also reviewing the regulatory recommendations of both the accident investigation team and the internal review team to determine which regulatory changes to pursue.”
In December 2011, an MSHA team issued the results of its investigation at UBB. The probe determined that the 29 miners who perished at UBB died in a massive coal dust explosion that most likely started with an initial methane ignition and was fueled by excessive amounts of coal dust transitioning into a massive coal dust explosion. The physical conditions at the mine that led to the coal dust explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations, which Massey disregarded, Main said. The company did not apply adequate amounts of needed rock dust to areas of the mine involved in the explosion, allowing float coal dust, coal dust and loose coal to build up to dangerous levels, the report found.
Massey also did not comply with the mine’s approved ventilation and roof control plans and failed to conduct adequate on-shift, pre-shift, and weekly examinations. The company did not maintain the longwall shearer in proper operating condition and failed to maintain a sufficient volume of air in order to dilute or dissipate methane gas present in the mine, Main noted.
The illegal practices and procedures used by Massey at the mine included giving advance notice of MSHA inspections to workers underground so they could quickly fix or hide problems, intimidation of miners, keeping two sets of books that hid hazards from MSHA and others, and hiding injuries, Main said.