Families demand prosecutions in W.Va. mine blast

Dec 7 2011 - 8:59am

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(JEFF GENTNER/The Associated Press) Clay Mullins, brother of Rex Mullins, a victim of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, meets with officials from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011 in Beaver, W.Va. Officals said that the new owners of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 men were killed in an April 2010 explosion, would pay a record $210 million to cover fines, compensate victims’ grieving families and improve underground safety.
(JEFF GENTNER/The Associated Press) Clay Mullins, brother of Rex Mullins, a victim of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, meets with officials from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011 in Beaver, W.Va. Officals said that the new owners of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 men were killed in an April 2010 explosion, would pay a record $210 million to cover fines, compensate victims’ grieving families and improve underground safety.

BEAVER, W.Va. -- Money -- even a lot of it -- is cold comfort to some relatives of the 29 men who died in the worst mining disaster in decades. They want justice, the kind that comes with a courtroom and a prison cell.

The families listened in shock Tuesday as federal prosecutors announced the biggest settlement in a U.S. coal mining disaster with the new owners of the Upper Big Branch mine. The former owner, Massey Energy, had been accused of putting profits ahead of safety, so Alpha Natural Resources agreed to pay nearly $210 million, with checks of $500,000 headed to the grieving families before Christmas.

Federal regulators explained how the deal wiped the slate clean for some 370 safety violations related to the April 5, 2010, explosion, the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades. Though the Mine Safety and Health Administration also pledged to review its own handling of the mine, the words failed to placate. No criminal charges were announced.

"It was an act of murder," declared an angry Clay Mullins, whose brother Rex was among those killed. "They murdered 29 men, and I'm not satisfied one bit."

Gene Jones, whose twin brother Dean died in the blast, said MSHA's investigation and the settlement showed the depth of coal operators' callousness.

"These people don't care. They're all wondering who they can pay off," Jones said. "I want to see people go to jail because this was preventable."

Federal regulators agreed in their final report, saying the explosion was the result of a series of basic safety violations and entirely preventable.

MSHA said the root cause was Massey's "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to conceal life-threatening problems, noting managers went so far as to maintain two sets of pre-shift inspection books -- an accurate one for itself, and a fake one for regulators. They also habitually warned miners underground when an inspector arrived on site, trying to give crews time to make the mine appear safe.

MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin said in the year before the blast, his agency issued more violation orders at Upper Big Branch than at any other mine. It shut the mine down 48 times that year but had to let it reopen when problems were fixed. The agency lacked the power to close mines permanently -- and still does.

"We thought we were keeping accidents from happening," he said.

Alpha, which bought Massey in June, will bankroll a variety of cutting-edge safety improvements and pay for years of violations at Upper Big Branch and other former Massey operations. Though the corporation can't be held criminally liable under the settlement, some former Massey employees may be.

"No individuals are off the hook," warned U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, adding that prosecutors are still investigating. So far, only one person has been held accountable: Former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover was convicted last month of lying to investigators and trying to destroy mine records. He is awaiting sentencing.

Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne died in Upper Big Branch, said Stover's trial should be the first of many.

"I'll be satisfied when I hear who they're going to indict and what for," he said. "... I want to hear names, and I want to know what they're going to be charged for. Today would have been a fine day for them to have told us."

Goodwin said there were enormous benefits provided by the settlement.

"It wasn't simply the stroke of a pen writing a check," he said.

MSHA's final report detailed 369 safety violations at Upper Big Branch, including 12 it said contributed to the explosion. MSHA labeled nine of the violations that led to the accident as flagrant, the most serious designation.

The report confirmed what the agency and other investigators have previously concluded: Massey allowed highly explosive methane gas and coal dust to accumulate, and worn and broken cutting equipment created the spark that ignited the fuel. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed a mere flare-up to turn into an inferno that ripped through miles of underground tunnels and killed men instantly.

Stricklin said the initial fire was just 20 feet wide, 12 feet long and 8 feet high. Then it met the coal dust and became a chain-reaction event.

Last year, Stricklin said, U.S. mines experienced about 40 such ignitions, and all but one or two were extinguished immediately by miners who had proper training and equipment. At Upper Big Branch, they had neither. MSHA's investigation found 112 miners had no basic safety training whatsoever.

"Every time Massey sent miners into the UBB Mine, Massey put those miners' lives at risk," said MSHA director Joe Main.

The settlement consists of $46.5 million in restitution to the miners' families, $128 million for safety improvements, research and training, and $35 million in fines for safety violations at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines.

The deal guarantees the families of the dead miners and two co-workers who survived the explosion each receive $1.5 million. Those who accept the payout can still pursue lawsuits, but the $1.5 million will be deducted from any settlement or jury award. At least eight families of dead miners previously settled with Massey.

Virginia-based Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said the agreement represented the best path forward.

"We're particularly pleased that a substantial portion of the settlement is going towards furthering miner safety, which has always been Alpha's guiding principle," he said.

The deal was seen as precedent-setting because of the amount of money and the efforts to make mining safer.

"Alpha definitely knows they had a problem. Whenever they bought Massey, they bought all of Massey's older problems," said Bruce Dial, who runs a mine consulting company out of Pineville, N.C. "This is their way of saying, 'Massey did this, we bought Massey, let's settle up and start new.'"

Alpha will invest $48 million in a mine-safety research trust and spend an additional $80 million to improve safety at all of its mines with the latest technology. The improvements will include coating mines with crushed limestone to reduce the risk of a coal-dust explosion; using digital sensors to continuously monitor air flow and methane levels; and adopting emergency oxygen equipment, similar to what firefighters rely on, to give miners an uninterrupted supply of air while trying to escape from an underground accident.

When asked why the Justice Department, not the Department of Labor, initiated such improvements, MSHA said prosecutors have far more discretion about how to use its money and Main conceded: "It's clear to everybody that the U.S. attorney's office can move swifter than we can."

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