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Upper Big Branch mine supervisor given 21 months in prison

21 January 2013

Gary May, the former superintendent at a mine where 29 men were killed in a blast in April, 2010, has been given a 21-month prison term. He admitted in March to charges of falsifying records, disabling a methane gas monitor and tipping off workers ahead of inspections at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

A memorial to the 29 victims at the entrance to the now closed mine
A memorial to the 29 victims at the entrance to the now closed mine

Other violations concealed included poor airflow in the mine, piles of loose, combustible coal, and limited use of suppressant rock dust, which prevents mine explosions.

Investigators concluded then-owner Massey Energy allowed explosive methane and coal dust to build up in the mine. These were ignited by a spark from improperly maintained mining equipment, the investigation concluded.

"With this sentence, [Federal Judge Irene] Berger took the opportunity to send 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," US Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a statement.

She said the sentence should send a message to any mine official who might put business interests ahead of safety laws. In February, Upper Big Branch chief Hughie Elbert Stover was sentenced to three years in prison on charges he lied to investigators. May testified at his trial.

The mine's new owners, Alpha Natural Resources, have agreed to pay $210m (£135m) in damages in connection with the accident - the largest US settlement for a mining disaster.

A plea hearing for a former executive of Massey Energy, the mine's previous corporate owner, is scheduled for next month. Like May, the executive, David Hughart, has been co-operating with prosecutors.

Earlier, the US Labor Department on December 17  issued a new rule meant to avert a repeat of the Upper Big Branch tragedy.

The regulation, which takes effect on March 25, streamlines the process by which the agency’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) can crack down on mine operators with patterns of violating health and safety violations. 

“It exacted a terrible toll on the nation, coal miners’ families and coal companies,” outgoing Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said. “The rule we are announcing today will hold mine operators accountable when they disregard life-saving safety measures.”

In the explosion’s aftermath, MSHA issued a scathing report finding that Massey systematically violated health and safety rules that, if followed, could have prevented the deaths. 

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