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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.