A government prosecutor charged a former Massey Energy mine manager today with conspiring to obstruct federal regulators before a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
West Virginia US Attorney Booth Goodwin accused Gary May, who managed the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, of breaking mine laws to cover up safety hazards and to prevent inspectors from slowing coal production.
Prosecutors say Mr May conspired with others to develop an elaborate scheme that included code words to alert miners underground when inspectors turned up, changing ventilation plans and disabling a methane gas sensor on the continuous mining machine.
Other mine workers have told investigators there was never enough fresh air to sweep out the highly explosive methane and coal dust that regularly built up.
Three separate probes have shown the gas and dust caused the April 2010 disaster.
"Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated, in part because of a belief that following those laws would decrease coal production," Mr Goodwin wrote.
Although other mine disasters have led to criminal charges, they've typically targeted low-ranking employees. A conviction on the federal fraud charge could result in fines and up to five years in prison.
Mr Goodwin urged a federal judge last week to make an example of the only other person charged so far, former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover.
He is demanding the maximum 25-year prison sentence for actions he says contributed to the disaster.
Mr Stover will be sentenced next Wednesday for lying to federal investigators and attempting to destroy documents.
Official reports about the explosion have concluded that Virginia-based Massey Energy, which has since been bought by Alpha Natural Resources, allowed gas and dust to build up and failed to properly maintain the cutting equipment that eventually created the spark that started the explosion.
Clogged and broken water sprayers then allowed what could have been a minor flare-up to become an epic blast that travelled through seven miles of tunnels, doubling back on itself and killing the men instantly.
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