A sign shows support for coal miners after an April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Whitesville, West Virginia.

Story highlights

The Upper Big Branch mine was hit by an explosion on April 5, 2010

Twenty-nine miners died in West Virginia disaster

A federal conspiracy charge is filed against the mine superintendent

The charge alleges that mine safety and health laws were violated before the explosion

Washington CNN  — 

The man in charge of ensuring the safety of miners at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine, where 29 died in a 2010 explosion, is now charged with routinely skirting the regulations that he was supposed to enforce.

If Superintendent Gary May, 43, is convicted in federal court, he could receive up to five years in prison.

May was named in a criminal information, which usually signals an expected guilty plea and an agreement to cooperate with authorities in an ongoing investigation.

“Today’s charge is a significant step in the investigation of events at the Upper Big Branch mine,” said Booth Goodwin, the top federal prosecutor in West Virginia. “Our investigation of those events remains ongoing.”

The court document specifically charged May with impeding the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement efforts at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine between February 2008 and April 5, 2010 – the date of the fatal explosion.

“Mine safety and health laws were routinely violated at (Upper Big Branch) in part because of a belief that that following those laws would decrease coal production,” said the charging document filed in federal court in Charleston.

The document says May and others, who were not named, agreed…”to hamper, hinder, impede, and obstruct by trickery, deceit, and dishonest means” the enforcement of mine health and safety laws at Upper Big Branch. The conspirators allegedly passed along advance notice of “surprise” federal inspections, and falsified examination records of the mine.

There was no immediate response to Wednesday’s announcement from May or his attorney.

Justice Department officials declined to comment, but industry sources said possible targets in the continuing probe are higher-ranking officials of Performance Coal, which operated Upper Big Branch, and the parent company, Massey Energy.