Energy company reaches federal settlement in connection to Upper Big Branch mine disaster

The Takeaway

On Tuesday, a measure of resolution was reached in connection with the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

Alpha Natural Resources, the company that bought Massey Energy and its Upper Big Branch mine, the federal government and the families of the two survivors and 29 deceased victims of the explosion reached a $210 million financial settlement. It’s the largest settlement ever reached in connection with a U.S. mining disaster.

The federal government described the incident as “an entirely preventable” tragedy.

Under the terms of the settlement, the owner of the mine will not be charged with any crimes, but the agreement leaves the door open for individual employees to be prosecuted in the future.

West Virginia Public Radio reporter Jessica Lilly said many of the families want accountability and want to see someone go to jail.

“They don’t understand why 29 men have died,” she said. “There is a culture within the coal fields of these things happening and no one being held accountable.”

They are holding out hope that upper management of the mine will be held criminally accountable for the accident.

Nick Rahall, a Democrat has represented southern West Virginia in Congress since 1977, has long championed greater accountability in the mining industry.

“These families have not yet and will never be made completely whole. And yet, there is still justice to be completed in this process,” he said. “We can never allow the lives of the courageous 29 coal miners to go forgotten.”

Rahall said the truly guilty, those responsible for instituting a culture of production over safety haven’t yet be held accountable, and also may never be held accountable. Rahall said many people want to get on with their lives.

“Upper management is taking the Fifth Amendment. They know some will cover for others. Perhaps some lower ones will take the fall and serve criminal terms in jail and not tell on the others,” he said. “They’ve seen this happen so many times before.”

Rahall said Massey Energy implemented unlawful policies and procedures that directly led to this disaster.

Lilly said if there is a positive legacy from this tragedy, the federal mine safety regulators have tried to step up inspections and enforce safety requirements.

“We’ve seen them increase inspections, surprise inspections,” she said. But “the culture in the coal industry doesn’t seem to be changing, from coal miners I’m talking to.”

Rahall said there have been safety improvements already — and some new ones mandated by this federal settlement.

“There will be positive results come of this settlement. There have been positive changes made since this disaster,” he said. “But, until you beef up the criminal penalties for violations, which only Congress can do…”

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