- Associated Press - Thursday, March 29, 2012

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) — The former superintendent of a southern West Virginia mine where an explosion killed 29 workers pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal fraud charge.

Gary May of Bloomingrose, W.Va., the highest-ranking Massey Energy official charged in connection with the blast, faces up to five years in prison when sentenced Aug. 9.

May pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Irene Berger in Beckley to conspiracy to defraud the federal government. The charge stems from his actions at the Upper Big Branch mine.

Prosecutors said May manipulated the mine ventilation system during inspections to fool safety officials and disabled a methane monitor on a cutting machine a few months before the explosion on April 5, 2010. It wasn’t clear from court papers whether the device ever was fixed.

The blast was the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years.

Prosecutors have accused Massey of violating a host of safety laws out of a desire to put production and profits first.

Three investigations of the blast concluded that the company allowed highly explosive methane and coal dust to build up inside the mine, where it was ignited by a spark from an improperly maintained piece of cutting equipment. Clogged and broken water sprayers then allowed what could have been just a flare-up to become an epic blast, the investigations found.

May spoke in quiet tones and gave short answers until Judge Berger asked him to describe what happened at the mine.

He told the judge that federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors would show up on the property and he would alert employees in the mine by telephone that they were about to come underground.

Judge Berger also asked May if he acted with anyone else.

“All the station foremen, they would call up periodically to ask if there were any inspectors,” May replied.

A recent internal review by the MSHA concluded that federal inspectors either missed problems or failed to examine areas where they existed in the 18 months before the blast, but the review found no evidence those failures caused it.

Last week, though, a team led by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health issued a report concluding that timely enforcement of existing regulations “would have lessened the chances of — and possibly could have prevented” the explosion.

Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Va., bought Massey and all its operations, including the Upper Big Branch mine, last summer.

Prosecutors have refused to say whether they are targeting former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, a hard-nosed executive whose company was cited for violations so frequently that union critics accused him of regarding fines as simply the cost of doing business.

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