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Mine owner agrees to pay record settlement in deadly blast

The new owner of Massey Energy agrees to pay $209 million in fines and compensation in last year's Upper Big Branch mine explosion. The deal does not preclude criminal charges against individuals.

December 06, 2011|By Kim Geiger, Washington Bureau
  • A miner's boots, helmet and gloves rest at a memorial last year for those killed in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
A miner's boots, helmet and gloves rest at a memorial last year for… (Amy Sancetta, Associated…)

Reporting from Washington — The owner of the West Virginia coal mine where a fiery explosion killed 29 miners last year has agreed to pay a record $209 million in compensation and fines, officials said Tuesday, but the financial settlement does not stop other investigations into the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine.

The settlement stops federal prosecutors from pursuing any criminal charges against Alpha Natural Resources, the company that acquired the mine's owner, Massey Energy Co., in June.

But inquiries into individual criminal liability are ongoing, and the agreement does not bar prosecutors from pursuing criminal charges against individuals, according to U.S. Atty. R. Booth Goodwin in Charleston, W.Va.

PHOTOS: West Virginia mine disaster

"No individuals are off the hook," Goodwin said.

The financial settlement includes $46.5 million in criminal restitution to families of the 29 miners who died and to two others who were injured. Each will receive $1.5 million, which is half the amount Massey had offered when it sought to settle with families immediately after the blast, according to the Associated Press.

Alpha also agreed to invest at least $80 million in mine safety enhancements at its underground mines, to place $48 million in a trust to fund research to advance mine safety and to pay up to $34.8 million in penalties to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

"The tragedy at Upper Big Branch will never be forgotten, and the families affected by it will never be made completely whole again," U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

"While we continue to investigate individuals associated with this tragedy, this historic agreement — one of the largest payments ever for workplace safety crimes of any type — will help to create safer work environments for miners in West Virginia and across the country."

The Upper Big Branch explosion on April 5, 2010, was the deadliest coal mining disaster in four decades.

A report by the Mine Safety and Health Administration determined that the blast was caused by a buildup of methane gas and combustible coal dust resulting from inadequate ventilation systems. Massey and its subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., allowed conditions in the mine "that set the stage for a catastrophic mine explosion," the agency said.

Those conditions were "entirely preventable," but the companies "promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law," the agency said.

At the time of the explosion, Massey had one of the nation's worst safety records. At the Upper Big Branch mine, citations for safety violations increased sharply and regulators ordered miners out of the mine at nearly 19 times the national rate.

Some family members and union officials criticized the settlement Tuesday as inadequate and called for criminal charges against officials who had permitted unsafe conditions at the mine.

"We firmly believe the evidence is there for criminal prosecution," said Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America. "Until someone goes to jail, there will be no justice done here."

Goodwin, the U.S. attorney, said the settlement was aimed at preventing another disaster and that the payments for mine safety research would help advance that goal.

"For far too long, we've accepted the idea that catastrophic accidents are an inherent risk of being a coal miner," Goodwin said. "It's long past time we put that myth to rest. We believe that this agreement does that."

PHOTOS: West Virginia mine disaster

kim.geiger@latimes.com

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