W. Va. mine families want criminal prosecutions

View near the scene of a mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W. Va., April 5, 2010. Twenty-nine miners lost their lives in the worst U.S. coal mine disaster in decades. AP

BEAVER, W.Va. - In the biggest settlement ever reached in a U.S. mining disaster, the new owners of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 men were killed in an explosion agreed Tuesday to pay $210 million over a tragedy the government blamed on the ruthless pursuit of profits ahead of safety.

The money will go to compensate the grieving families, bankroll cutting-edge safety improvements and pay for years of violations by Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch mine at the time of the April 2010 blast.

Under the deal, Alpha Natural Resources — which bought Massey earlier this year — will face no criminal charges in the explosion as long as it abides by the settlement, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said.

But "no individuals are off the hook," Goodwin warned, adding that federal prosecutors are still investigating former Massey managers.

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Charges have been brought against only one person so far: the mine's former security chief, Hughie Elbert Stover. A federal jury convicted him last month of lying to investigators and trying to destroy mine records. He is awaiting sentencing.

The settlement was bitterly criticized by some of the dead men's relatives, who said they won't be satisfied until charges are filed against those they consider responsible for the catastrophe, the nation's deadliest mine accident in 40 years.

Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne Quarles died in the disaster, 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."

Hours after the settlement was announced, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration released a final report on the blast that 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, and said they included illegally tipping off miners that inspectors were on the site and failing to conduct proper safety inspections.

"The physical conditions that led to the explosion were the result of a series of basic safety violations at UBB and were entirely preventable," the report said.

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

"Every time Massey sent miners into the UBB Mine, Massey put those miners' lives at risk," said MSHA director Joe Main. "Massey management created a culture of fear and intimidation in their miners to hide their reckless practices. Today's report brings to light the tragic consequences of a corporate culture that values production over people."

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 seeks to guarantee that the families of the 29 dead miners and two co-workers who survived the explosion will 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.

Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said the company cooperated fully with authorities and believes the agreement represents "the best path forward for everyone."

"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.

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