Mine Safety In America


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Federal prosecutors filed conspiracy charges today stemming from the explosion that killed 29 coal miners two years ago. Prosecutors say a top official from the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia tricked regulators into believing the mine was safe when it wasn't. He's charged with conspiring to defraud the federal government. And as NPR's Howard Berkes reports, there may be more charges to come.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Forty-three-year-old Gary May was one of two superintendents at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, and prosecutors say he thwarted surprise federal safety inspections, falsified safety records, deceived federal inspectors and ordered a dangerous act: the disabling of a monitor that detects explosive levels of methane gas. That was in February 2010. And mine worker Ricky Lee Campbell watched as May told an electrician to disable the methane detector.

RICKY LEE CAMPBELL: He knew it was dangerous. He knew he shouldn't have been doing it. But when somebody higher up telling you to do something, you're going to do what they say.

BERKES: The detector malfunctioned and kept shutting down a mining machine cutting coal. Instead of waiting a couple of hours for a new detector, May had it jerry-rigged so mining could continue. That risked an ignition of methane gas and the kind of explosion that took place less than three months later. The incident illustrates Massey Energy's management, and the charges are aimed at that, says Davitt McAteer, who conducted an independent investigation of the tragedy.

DAVITT MCATEER: The issue has to be what was going on in this mine that led to the conditions that caused the explosion, and that was a management role, and this looks at that question very carefully.

BERKES: It's also clear that prosecutors are looking beyond Gary May because they filed charges in what is called a criminal information and not an indictment. David Uhlmann is a former federal prosecutor.

DAVID UHLMANN: The defendant would waive indictment if he or she was going to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against other individuals. That almost always means officials who are higher up within the company.

BERKES: U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin hints that that is, in fact, the case.

BOOTH GOODWIN: Without commenting specifically on this case, I can tell you that a defendant can only be charged by information if he agrees to waive his constitutional right to indictment. And information typically indicates that an agreement has been reached with the defendant and that he's cooperating with the government's investigation.

BERKES: And that is welcome news to Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne died in the Upper Big Branch explosion.

GARY QUARLES: I think it's past time for them to put people like this in jail. I hope he can talk and maybe get some more people that's involved in this, that they can put some of them in jail. That's what I want.

BERKES: And that's rare in mine disasters. Few people ever go to jail. In fact, Gary May, a mine superintendent, is the highest-ranking mine official charged in a disaster in 20 years. Neither May nor his attorney responded to NPR's requests for comment. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

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