WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The former superintendent of the West Virginia mine where 29 workers died in a 2010 explosion pleaded guilty on Thursday to a federal conspiracy charge that he tipped off employees to safety inspections.
Gary May, 43, is the most senior executive with Massey Energy to face criminal charges in the Upper Big Branch blast, the worst U.S. mine accident in four decades.
May, of Bloomingrose, West Virginia, pleaded guilty to a felony conspiracy charge of impeding Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) enforcement efforts between February 2008 and April, 5, 2010, when the explosion took place, the Justice Department said in a statement.
"I'm pleased that Mr. May is cooperating with our investigation," Booth Goodwin, the U.S. attorney for West Virginia's Southern District, said in the statement.
May warned workers of MSHA inspections and admitted to concealing health and safety violations when he knew inspections were nearing, the statement said.
May said he ordered a mine examination book to be falsified. He also told miners to rewire the methane detector on a piece of mine equipment so the equipment could run illegally, it said.
May faces up to five years' in prison and a $250,000 fine. Sentencing is scheduled for August 9.
The head of security at Upper Big Branch was charged last year with impeding investigators and lying to them. A former foreman also has been accused of lying to investigators. May's plea came one day after a federal judge in Beckley, West Virginia, refused to dismiss a lawsuit by former Massey shareholders who said the company misled them about its safety record and its commitment to ensuring the safety of its miners. The decision by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger lets investors led by the Massachusetts Pension Reserves Investment Trust pursue claims that the deceptive activity inflated Massey's stock price between February 2008 and July 2010. Alpha Natural Resources Inc bought Massey for about $6.7 billion on June 1, 2011. Alpha agreed in December to pay $1.5 million to each of the families of the 29 miners who died as part of a $209 million settlement.
(Reporting By Ian Simpson and by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Paul Thomasch)