Upper Big Branch Mine Superintendent Gary May has been accused this morning in a criminal information of conspiracy, falsifying examination records, giving advanced notice of MSHA inspections, and ordering methane monitor tampering.
The charges were filed in U.S. District Court in Beckley, W.Va., by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby.
Methane monitor tampering was first reported in June 2010 when UBB miners Ricky Lee Campbell, Chris Meadows, George Holtzapfel, Clay Mullins and Chuck Nelson publicly talked about methane monitoring tampering with several news organizations (17 MSHN 335).
UBB miner Clay Mullins told Howard Berkes and Frank Langfit of NPR that he was under the belief that if a methane monitor malfunctioned that miners could bridge it out until parts were available to fix it. While the methane monitor did not work, Mullins believed that a hand-held monitor could be substituted as long as methane checks were made every 15 minutes. Nowhere in the regulations is this a permissible substitute.
Chuck Nelson had told Lilly from Hill’s Healthwatch just days after the accident at the Upper Big Branch Mine, “They had sniffers—what they called sniffers—and whenever you hit a pocket of methane [above a certain level], it shut the power off the [coal harvester]. But I’ve seen these sniffers bridged out.”
According the Post Gazette in a June 20, 2010 story, Campbell said he and two other miners at Upper Big Branch saw a supervisor instruct George Holtzapfel to run a wire that would bypass a methane detector on a continuous mining machine on Feb. 13—seven weeks before the blast. The Post Gazette reported that Holtzapfel confirmed the tampering.
Chris Meadows told West Virginia Public Broadcasting in an April 16 story, “I’ve personally seen methane monitors bridged out so that we could keep mining so the miner could stay on. You just open up the panel and you unhook that wire so the machine will keep working or you create a bridge to overlap that methane monitor to bypass it so you can keep on running. You don’t think about things like that you’re interested in running coal. You’re making money so you just want to keep on mining coal.”
According to the criminal information filed this morning, “in or around February 2010, the legally mandated methane monitor on a continuous mining machine at the Mine stopped operating properly, which caused the continuous mining machine to be automatically deactivated as required by law. May caused and ordered the electrical wiring in the methane monitor to be altered to defeat the legally mandated automatic shut-off mechanism, allowing the continuous mining machine to be operated for several hours without a functioning methane monitor.”
The criminal information claims that mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at UBB, in part because of a belief that following the law would decrease coal production.
“Beginning no later than February 2008 and continuing through and including April 5, 2010, May, together with others known and unknown, unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly combined, conspired, confederated, and agreed together with each other to defraud the United States and an agency thereof, to wit, to hamper, hinder, impede, and obstruct by trickery, deceit, and dishonest means, the lawful and legitimate functions of DOL and its agency, MSHA, in the administration and enforcement of mine health and safety laws at UBB,” according to the criminal information filed against May.
Part of the conspiracy was giving advanced notice to the miners underground in order to correct ventilation violations and direct additional air to certain areas before the MSHA inspectors were able to get underground to a particular section of the mine.
May has also been charged with falsifying examination record books by omitting certain conditions found in the mine. According to the information filed, May ordered a person to omit the fact that there was an excess amount of water in a section of the mine that made it hazardous to travel. Transcripts disclosed that miners had to sometimes travel neck-deep in water.
The independent investigation headed by Davitt McAteer found that UBB had long-term, continuing problems maintaining adequate ventilation, in part due to the water. For instance, over the Easter weekend, when the mine was idle, water rose and partially blocked the air course to an exhausting fan that was critical to the whole ventilation system, interviews indicated. One miner told investigators “we had a very bad problem with water” in the range of 2 or 3 weeks before the explosion. “We had to keep pumps constantly running so it didn’t roof out,” he said.
A complete story will be in Vol. 19, No. 5 issue of Mine Safety and Health News.
U.S. v. Gary May, U.S. District Court, Southern Dist. of W.Va., Beckley, No. 5:12:00050