US coal mine manager jailed over explosion

Last updated 13:46 18/01/2013
REMEMBERED: A miner's helmet sits on display at the Country Store in remembrance of the miners who were killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine accident in Whitesville, West Virginia.

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The manager of an American coal mine that blew up killing 29 miners has been sent to prison for 21 months and fined US$20,000 (NZ$24,000).

Gary May, 43, was a superintendent at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine in West Virginia which exploded in April, 2010. It was the worst mining disaster in the US in 40 years.

The explosion was similar to the one at New Zealand's Pike River Mine seven months later, which also killed 29 miners. No criminal charges have been laid in relation to Pike River.

May had earlier pleaded guilty before US District Court Judge Irene Berger to conspiracy to impede the Mine Safety and Health Administration's (MSHA) enforcement efforts at the mine.

May has cooperated with prosecutors in their continuing criminal investigation and was one of three people to face serious criminal charges.

Attorney Booth Goodwin hailed the sentence.

"With this sentence, Judge 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."

May admitted that he and others conspired to impede MSHA in administering and enforcing mine health and safety laws at UBB.

He acknowledged giving advance warning of MSHA inspections, often using code phrases to avoid detection.

May also admitted to concealing health and safety violations when he knew inspections were imminent.

The violations concealed included poor airflow in the mine, piles of loose, combustible coal, and scarcities of rock dust, which prevents mine explosions.

May further acknowledged that he ordered a mine examination book to be falsified. He also said he told miners to rewire the methane gas detector on a piece of mine equipment so the equipment could run illegally.

Judge Berger emphasised that his actions risked catastrophic consequences.

She said the sentence should send a message to any mine official who might put business interests ahead of safety laws.

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