Former Upper Big Branch superintendent going to prison

The former superintendent at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, US, where 29 men were killed in a blast in 2010, has been given a 21-month prison term, said the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Gary May admitted last year to charges he falsified records, disabled a methane gas monitor and tipped off workers ahead of inspections at Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

The 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, considered the worst accident at a U.S. coal mine in four decades, pushed authorities to issue a new set of rules for inspecting underground coal mines in April last year.

Current owner Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (NYSE: ANR) said last year it planned to permanently close the mine.

The new guidelines require underground coal mine operators to examine more thoroughly and correct hazardous conditions that pose a threat to miners.

U.S. Department of Labour officials concluded in 2011, that the explosion could and should have been prevented by the operator, Massey Energy.  They said that evidence did not support Massey's claims that the explosion was caused by a sudden, unforeseen inflow of gas. A crack in the floor, which Massey had identified as the likely source of the gas, was found to be 'rootless', which means it was not connected to an area containing combustible gas.

The explosion was most likely started by a limited amount of methane or natural gas, probably ignited by the longwall shearer, they said. The ignition was allowed to occur because of missing and faulty water sprays.

Alpha Natural Resources, have agreed to pay $210 million in damages in connection with the accident – the largest US settlement for a mining disaster.

(Image: A Massey mine several miles north of where the Upper Big Branch, courtesy of  the United Steelworkers and Communications Workers of America Health, Safety & Environment)

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