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Settlement Reported In West Virginia Mine Disaster

Filed by KOSU News in US News.
December 6, 2011

The owner of West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine is reportedly ready to pay $200 million to settle civil and criminal claims resulting from the explosion that killed 29 people last year.

The settlement was first reported by the Charleston Gazette, and some details were confirmed by NPR. A private briefing about the settlement is scheduled Tuesday morning for the families of the victims. A public announcement is set later in the morning.

The deal involves Alpha Natural Resources, the company that bought out Upper Big Branch owner Massey Energy earlier this year. The Gazette reports that former Massey executives and managers are still subject to criminal charges as individuals. But the settlement apparently resolves some criminal liability incurred by Alpha as a corporate entity.

The Justice Department and the Mine Safety and Health Administration were severely criticized in 2008 when they approved a similar settlement in another deadly mine disaster also involving Massey Energy. In that deal, the government agreed not to seek criminal charges against high-level Massey officials.

Alpha spokesman Ted Pile declined to comment Monday night. A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin also declined to comment.

MSHA’s Final Report On What Caused Explosion

The settlement resolves serious safety violations, citations and fines encompassing all of Massey Energy’s mines, as well as civil and criminal violations directly related to the Upper Big Branch tragedy. Mine Safety and Health News, a trade publication, reports that the settlement includes $28 million in unpaid fines unrelated to the explosion.

The first citations and fines stemming from the disaster were set to be revealed Tuesday when MSHA issues its final report on the causes of the explosion. Sources familiar with that report say it includes more than 350 citations for safety violations and charges Massey Energy with engaging in a pattern and practice of putting production before safety.

Massey Energy insisted the explosion resulted from a natural infusion of methane gas, but three investigations of the disaster concluded the evidence doesn’t support that theory.

Alpha has yet to issue its own report or conclusions.

The Gazette reports and NPR sources confirm that the settlement includes cash payments for the families of the 29 miners killed.

But some connected with the families were surprised and angered by news of the settlement.

‘Doesn’t Bring Justice’

“It’s so wrong,” says Judy Jones Petersen, a Charleston physician whose brother Dean Jones died in the explosion. Petersen is upset by what she sees as a release of some criminal liability for the deaths of 29 men in exchange for a $200 million payment. “It’s so absolutely wrong on the very deepest level of what is moral and right.”

Attorneys Rachel and Mark Moreland, who represent two families of Upper Big Branch victims, also reacted with anger.

“$200 million for the lives of 29 men certainly doesn’t bring justice to the families of those dead miners,” says Mark Moreland.

Moreland and attorneys for other families are engaged in mediation talks aimed at settling lawsuits against Alpha. Moreland says those talks and lawsuits will not be affected by the civil and criminal settlement with the Justice Department.

Investigations Cite Safety Failures

In a report released in October, the United Mineworkers of America called the Upper Big Branch explosion “industrial homicide” that “constituted a massive slaughter” at the nonunion mine. In June, MSHA issued preliminary conclusions saying Massey Energy kept two sets of safety records — one provided to federal regulators indicating that safety procedures were followed, and an internal set showing the opposite.

In May, an independent team of investigators appointed by former governor Joe Manchin and led by former mine safety chief Davitt McAteer cited what they called “deviance” in the safety culture at Massey.

All three investigations have said safety failures at the mine caused a small and normally benign methane gas ignition to erupt into a massive explosion fed by excessive coal dust.

The disaster is the deadliest in the mining industry in the U.S. in the past 40 years. Coincidentally, Tuesday is the anniversary of the nation’s worst industrial accident, the Monongah coal mine explosion in West Virginia in 1907 in which more than 300 men and boys were killed. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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