CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A former superintendent at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine where 29 miners died in a 2010 explosion was sentenced to nearly two years in prison Thursday on a federal conspiracy charge.
Gary May pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Beckley last March to charges he defrauded the government through his actions at the mine, including disabling a methane gas monitor and falsifying records.
In addition to his 21-month sentence, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger fined May $20,000.
May had asked for leniency. Federal sentencing guidelines recommended 15 to 21 months in prison, although prosecutors pushed for a sentence at the high end. They said the guidelines didn't account for the risk to miner's lives created by May's actions.
"I think this does send a very powerful message that if you break mine laws and risk miners' lives, that you're going to go to jail," U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said.
May has cooperated with prosecutors in their continuing criminal investigation of the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. He's among three people to face serious criminal charges.
May had testified at the February 2012 sentencing of former Massey security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, who was sent to prison for three years for lying to investigators and ordering a subordinate to destroy documents. It was one of the stiffest punishments ever handed down in a mine safety case. In December, a federal appeals court upheld Stover's conviction.
A plea hearing is set for Feb. 28 for former longtime Massey Energy executive David Hughart on two federal conspiracy charges. He's accused of working with unnamed co-conspirators to ensure miners at White Buck and other Massey-owned operations got advance warning about surprise federal inspections between 2000 and March 2010.
Hughart worked closely with former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who retired about eight months after the explosion.
Prosecutors have also negotiated a $210 million agreement with the company that bought Massey, Alpha Natural Resources, to settle past violations at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines. That protects the company from criminal prosecution but leaves individuals open to it.
Goodwin didn't mention Blankenship when asked about him, noting instead that Hughart supervised a group of mines and had a long career at Massey.
"We are not simply focused on Upper Big Branch," Goodwin said. "We're going to take the investigation wherever it leads."