Coal miner’s life worth $1.5 million in $200 million settlement of Upper Big Branch mine disaster
Coming 104 years to the day after the deadliest U.S. coal mine disaster ever, in West Virginia, the U.S. Attorney said today the Federal government reached a $209 million civil and criminal settlement with Alpha Natural Resources over the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine — also in West Virginia — which killed 29 miners. Alpha acquired that mine from Massey Energy earlier this year.
Key individuals who worked for Massey still could face criminal charges, including CEO Don Blankenship (photo). Federal officials are not saying whom they are targeting for prosecution.
Both disasters shared the root cause of grossly inadequate safety regulations, lack of company compliance and enforcement of what regulations there were by the Federal government.
363 miners lost their lives in the 1907 accident in Monongah, West Virgina. One can only hope that more than a century — and other accidents — later the coal industry will clean up its act enough to avoid preventable accidents. In Alpha’s case, there is much work to be done — and confirmed.
Massey had been cited a total of 369 times, according to The New York Times. The citations included improperly training miners, allowing hazardous levels of loose coal and coal dust to accumulate and for failing to comply with ventilation plans.
Federal prosecutor Booth Goodwin said that determining “knowledge and intent” around criminal actions is a key element of the investigation. “The information doesn’t necessarily flow up the ladder,” he said, but added, “Massey was a company that was fairly closely controlled by a fairly tight group of individuals.”
The agreement calls for Alpha to make $46.5 million in payments to families of the 29 miners and two survivors. Included in that total is $1.5 million restitution to each of the families and survivors.
So there you have it. A coal miner’s life now has a price tag: $1.5 million.
One lawyer representing family members called the settlement an “injustice,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Mark Moreland, a West Virginia attorney who represents the estates of two deceased miners, said he believed Alpha should have been required to pay more to the families. He and other lawyers said ongoing mediation to resolve 18 wrongful death lawsuits stemming from the accident won’t be affected by the agreement.
Also today, Mine Safety and Health Administration imposed a $10.8 million fine — the largest in its history — on the company as it wrapped up its investigation into the April 2010 explosion.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that the 29 miners died as the result of a massive coal dust explosion that started as a methane ignition. Its investigation found the physical conditions that led to the explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine, which Massey and its subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., disregarded.
The safety administration’s report cites unlawful policies and practices implemented by Massey as the root cause of the explosion — including the intimidation of miners, advance notice of inspections, and two sets of books with hazards recorded in the mine’s internal production and maintenance book but not in the official examination book.
The investigation found that the operator 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.
UPDATE: Go here for a critical view of this settlement in an op-ed in the December 10, 2011 editions of The New York Times by former federal prosecutor and now a law professor at the University of Michigan, David Uhlmann.