Families get settlements in W.Va. mining disaster

Coal miner Terry Cooper (2nd-L) embraces his wife Michelle (L), daughter Tera (2nd-R)and son Justin (R), during a candlelite vigil to honor the coal miners that were killed, on April 10, 2010 in Montocal, West Virginia. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - A mine company has settled wrongful death lawsuits with families of all 29 victims of West Virginia's Upper Big Branch disaster, an attorney for the estates of two miners said Tuesday.

Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources did not immediately confirm the agreement or otherwise comment, but attorney Mark Moreland said the final deals were cut Tuesday afternoon after a marathon mediation session. He said Alpha also settled lawsuits by at least seven miners who were injured in the April 2010 blast, the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades.

Although some lawsuits had long since been settled, mediation of the final 13 began last week and continued through Tuesday. Moreland, who represented the estates of miners Ronald Lee Maynor and William Griffith, would not disclose the terms of the agreements, which will still require court approval.

"It's some compensation for a loss that can never be fully compensated," he said. "At this point, we await the action of the U.S. attorney. I think some people behind bars might bring complete closure to the matter."

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Alpha inherited the mine and the lawsuits when it bought Massey Energy last summer. It has since settled several unrelated lawsuits against other Massey operations. A company spokesman said last month Alpha was eager to shed the legacy problems and move forward.

In December, Alpha reached a $210 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice that spares the corporation criminal prosecution. Individuals, however, can still be prosecuted — as many families have publicly demanded.

The settlement included $46.5 million in restitution to the victims' families, guaranteeing them and two survivors of the blast $1.5 million apiece. That $1.5 million will be deducted from the wrongful death settlements.

Separate investigations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the United Mine Workers of America and an independent panel appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin have all agreed on what caused the blast.

They determined that Massey allowed highly explosive methane gas and coal dust to accumulate at Upper Big Branch, and that 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.

In its final report, MSHA said the root cause of the explosion was Massey's "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to conceal life-threatening problems. MSHA said mine managers went so far as to maintain two sets of pre-shift inspection books — an accurate one for itself, and a fake one to throw off regulators.

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