Federal prosecutors in West Virginia filed criminal charges on Wednesday against a former senior supervisor of the Upper Big Branch coal mine, where an explosion killed 29 miners in April 2010.
Gary May, 43, was charged with felony conspiracy for what prosecutors said was his role in thwarting federal inspectors in their efforts to enforce safety regulations at Upper Big Branch. The mine was owned by Massey Energy at the time of the explosion and purchased in June 2011 by Alpha Natural Resources.
The charges were filed directly with the court, rather than with a grand jury, suggesting that May is cooperating with authorities. May, the highest-ranking mine official charged so far, faces up to five years in prison if found guilty. Prosecutors said the investigation is "absolutely" not over.
May's testimony could implicate high-ranking corporate executives at Massey Energy in safety violations and fraud, including Don. L. Blankenship, the company's former CEO, said Mark D. Moreland, a West Virginia attorney who represents several families of miners who died at Upper Big Branch.
"The way that Massey Energy managed its mines was very hands-on by corporate people," said Moreland, who also served as a miners' representative during the federal investigation into the explosion. "From that, you can extrapolate that corporate people knew what was going on and directed what was going on."
Three investigations reports into the Upper Big Branch disaster concluded that inadequate ventilation allowed highly explosive dust to build up in the mine, causing the explosion. A 972-page report by the Labor Department in December 2011 found more than 300 violations of federal mine safety law and concluded that "unlawful policies and practices" by Massey were the "root cause of the tragedy."
The charges against May are part of an increasingly aggressive push for accountability by federal prosecutors in the Upper Big Branch case. On Feb. 14, U.S. attorney Booth Goodwin urged a federal judge in Charleston to give Hughie Elbert Stover, the former mine security chief at Upper Big Branch, a 25-year maximum sentence for lying to investigators and attempting to destroy evidence in the federal investigation of the disaster.
"A sentence consistent with the magnitude of the defendant's conduct and its consequences will send a resounding message: Gambling with coal miners' lives risks the most severe punishment available under the law," Goodwin wrote in a motion filed with the court.
"Tens of thousands of similar federal sentences are handed down every year," he wrote.
Federal sentencing guidelines recommend a sentence between 33 and 41 months, but a judge is not bound to follow those guidelines.
The push for a heavy sentence for Stover is yet another signal of a far less tolerant attitude by federal officials toward mine safety violations, Moreland said.
"I think it's another indication that there's a new sheriff in town," he said. "I think Goodwin is trying to make it clear to the industry that he's going to take these things very seriously."
Alpha Natural Resources released a statement on Wednesday noting that Gary May became an employee of a company subsidiary after its acquisition of Massey Energy in 2011, but had since been placed on administrative leave.
"Although Alpha was not operator of the mine at the time of the accident, the company supports efforts that will lead to a full understanding of the circumstances that precipitated this tragic event," the company said.