February 27, 2012
The filing of criminal conspiracy charges against a top-ranking mine superintendent at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners died, is a major step forward. Instead of seeking wrist-slapping penalties under weak mining laws, the United States attorney, R. Booth Goodwin II, filed fraud charges, accusing Gary May of plotting with others “known and unknown” to conceal lethal hazards, doctor safety records and manipulate ventilation equipment and machinery to foil inspectors and leave miners at risk for their lives.
Importantly, the charges suggest that Mr. May is cooperating with prosecutors and that prosecutors may be moving up the hierarchy of Massey Energy, the notorious operator of the Upper Big Branch mine. Three investigations concluded that Massey opted for greed over safety in failing to clean up hundreds of violations that led to the nation’s deadliest mine disaster in 40 years.
Safety investigators found Massey allowed explosive methane and coal dust to build up and be ignited by a spark from an improperly maintained coal-cutting machine. Clogged water sprayers failed to contain the blast.
Miners’ families have speculated that the company’s leaders will be spared in the inquiry, but the conspiracy prosecution signals otherwise. Eighteen company workers, including Don Blankenship, the former chief executive, have declined to cooperate, but Mr. Goodwin stressed he is “absolutely not” finished with the investigation.
The aggressive prosecution provides some hope that the victims’ families will see justice done. But the future of mine safety will depend on Congress, where Republicans have taken the lead in siding with Big Coal against far stronger laws.