MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- A judge has denied a motion to delay, so the January sentencing of a former superintendent at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine will go on as planned.
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger denied prosecutors' request for a postponement, saying they'd failed to "state good cause." In light of the time that's passed since Gary May pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge in March, Berger said she was denying the motion.
May's sentencing is set for Jan. 17 in Beckley. He's cooperating with federal authorities in the ongoing criminal investigation of the 2010 explosion at the former Massey Energy mine where 29 men died. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin had argued in his motion that he needed more time to develop evidence from May's cooperation.
"We will certainly be ready to proceed," Goodwin said Thursday. "However, the denial of the continuance is regrettable because, as we stated in our motion, there is a risk to the investigation from the sentencing proceeding itself.
"'We will certainly do our very best to minimize that risk as the matter proceeds as ordered," he said.
The explosion at Montcoal was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades. The mine has since been sealed, and Massey was sold to Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.
Last week, a federal appeals court upheld the conviction of a former UBB security chief who lied to investigators after the blast and ordered a subordinate to destroy documents.
Hughie Elbert Stover claimed there was no evidence he knowingly lied when he told investigators that miners were not alerted whenever inspectors arrived, but a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., disagreed.
Stover, 61, had been free while his appeal was heard but is now in the Federal Correctional Institution at Ashland, Ky.
Meanwhile, a former president at another Massey coal company is also cooperating with prosecutors in the UBB investigation.
Former White Buck Coal Co. President David C. Hughart is set to enter a plea to two federal conspiracy charges on Jan. 16, the day before May's sentencing.
Hughart is accused of working with unnamed co-conspirators to ensure miners at White Buck and other, unidentified Massey-owned operations, got advance warning about surprise federal inspections many times between 2000 and March 2010.
They say that gave workers time to conceal life-threatening violations that could have led to citations and shutdowns.
Hughart's cooperation is a sign that authorities may be gathering evidence to target officials further up the Massey hierarchy. Some victims' families hold former CEO Don Blankenship personally responsible, though prosecutors have declined to say who else could face charges in the wide-ranging and continuing probe.