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Conspiracy charges brought against former Massey Energy executives

World Coal,

Federal prosecutors have filed charges of conspiracy to defraud the US federal Government against the former managers of Massey Energy, who were in charge of the company at the time of the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine disaster that killed 29 coal miners in April 2010.

Former superintendent Gary May is charged with conspiracy to “hamper, hinder, impede and obstruct the lawful enforcement […] of mine health and safety laws.” Specific allegations brought against May include:

  • Warning miners of surprise inspections with code phrases, so that safety violations could be concealed.
  • Falsifying examination books that identified safety problems.
  • Deliberately altering the underground airflow when inspectors arrived.
  • Disabling a malfunctioning methane monitor, so that a continuous miner operated for several hours with it.

The prosecution has not claimed direct causality between these accusations and the UBB explosion, but rather is arguing that they are representative of a pattern of behaviour that saw the safety of the miners sacrificed for the sake of production. Former employees of UBB have testified that there was never sufficient fresh to expel the build up of coal dust and methane in the mine. Three separate investigations into the disaster have concluded that methane fuelled the deadly explosion, which was likely ignited by a spark from poorly-maintained cutting equipment.

The prosecution is also seeking charges against former higher level management and executives at Massey. May is third and highest-ranking former Massey employee charged in the ongoing investigation. If convicted, May faces up to five years in prison in addition to a fine.

Hughie Stover, Massey’s former security chief, was convicted last year of trying to destroy evidence and lying to investigators about the use of code phrases to warn miners about the appearance of safety inspectors. Stover faces up to 25 years in prison. Thomas Harrah, former mine foreman at Massey, was convicted for faking official credentials and lying to investigators.

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