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Upper Big Branch Superintendent Sentenced

Photo by Rana X/Flickr

A mine superintendent at the former Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (W.Va.) mine, where 29 coal miners were killed in 2010, will serve 21 months in prison for his role in disabling a methane monitor that automatically shuts down a coal cutting machine when dangerous levels of the explosive gas are detected.   

As part of a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Gary May also will pay a $20,000 fine. He also pleaded guilty to deceiving Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors and hiding safety violations. He was accused of taking part in a scheme to provide advance warning of MSHA inspections and concealing violations before the inspectors could arrive at the working sections of the huge underground mine.

At the sentencing today in federal court in Beckley, W.Va., U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the sentence sends:

A powerful message to this mine manager and other mine managers who would put profits over safety: if you violate mine laws and put miners at risk, you will go to jail.

Last February, the former director of security at the Upper Big Branch mine was sentenced to three years in federal prison for lying to federal agents and destroying documents sought by investigators looking into the deadly blast.

MSHA also announced today that it will toughen up the pattern of violations regulation system that is supposed to identify mines with continuing safety violations, such as Upper Big Branch, and allow inspectors more authority to shut down dangerous mines.

Other former Massey managers and executives are expected to be charged, and a former president of a Massey subsidiary has agreed to a plea deal.

While mine management regularly short-circuited safety regulations and put production before miner safety, MSHA’s enforcement effort and practices at Upper Big Branch also had a number of significant failures, according to MSHA’s own report released last year.    

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