"The former superintendent of a southern West Virginia mine where an explosion killed 29 workers in April 2010 pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal fraud charge," The Associated Press reports. "Gary May of Bloomingrose, the highest-ranking Massey Energy official charged in connection with the blast, faces up to five years in prison when sentenced Aug. 9."
As NPR's Howard Berkes reported for us earlier this week, May's guilty plea was expected. He had apparently been cooperating with prosecutors and testifying about other Massey managers' actions as part of a plea agreement.
Last month, as Howard reported, "federal prosecutors announced a criminal conspiracy charge against May ... [accusing him] of conspiring with others to 'hamper, hinder, impede, and obstruct the lawful enforcement ... of mine health and safety laws' at the mine."
In his reporting, Howard also wrote that:
"May was one of two top Massey managers at the mine and was responsible for day to day operations for portions of Upper Big Branch. He took on the superintendent's job five months before the explosion, which multiple investigations have blamed on numerous safety failures."
"The specific allegations against May included:
— Warning miners underground with "code phrases" when federal regulators arrived for surprise safety inspections, leading to concealment of violations.
— Falsifying "examination record books" at the mine, which identify safety problems, provide notice to federal inspectors and list needed fixes.
— Deliberately altering the air flow underground when federal safety inspectors arrived "in order to conceal and cover up the quantity of air that normally reached that area of the mine."
— Disabling a malfunctioning methane monitor on a mining machine "allowing the continuous mining machine to be operated for several hours without a functioning methane monitor."
Massey Energy was purchased by Alpha Natural Resources last year.