The Two-Way
5:30 am
Tue December 6, 2011

Coal Company To Pay More Than $200 Million In W. Va. Disaster

Originally published on Tue December 6, 2011 1:33 pm

(1:45 p.m. ET: We've retopped this post with the latest news and put earlier entries in chronological order so you can see how the story developed.)

The owner of West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine where 29 men died in an explosion last year has agreed to a nearly $210 million settlement that will compensate the victims' families, pay fines and fund upgrades in safety standards at its facilities, NPR's Howard Berkes reports from Charleston, W. Va.

That package includes about $46 million for the miners' families.

In addition, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration announced this afternoon that it has levied a fine of $10.8 million — the largest such penalty in the agency's history — for a "corporate culture" that it says was the root cause of the disaster.

Performance Coal, which operated the mine, and then-parent Massey Energy "promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, and broke the law as they endangered the lives of their miners," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement issued by her department.

MSHA has also posted its "Fatal Accident Investigation Report" into the disaster on its website. In the executive summary, the agency states that:

"The 29 miners who perished at UBB died in a massive coal dust explosion that startedas a methane ignition. 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 investigation also revealed multiple examples of systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators."

Massey has since been absorbed by Alpha Natural Resources.

Alpha spokesman Ted Pile says in an email statement sent to Howard that:

"The details of the [settlement] agreement show the tremendous efforts that Alpha has taken so far in instilling a culture of safety in the former Massey operations since we acquired them. We completed over 60,000 hours of safety training and that wasn't a mandate, it was the right thing to do. While we can't ever forget what happened on April 5, 2010, there is a time to take the hard lessons and effect positive change for the industry. That's what this agreement does. Much of the settlement is going to fund safety training, research and advanced technologies that will help ensure an even safer environment for our own miners and for coal miners everywhere."

The settlement agreement is here (just click on "Alpha Resources" to enlarge):

Other updates and our original post follow.

Update at 12:20 p.m. ET. Fresh Lede From The Associated Press:

"The owner of a West Virginia mine where 29 men died in the deadliest U.S. coalfield accident in decades will pay $210 million, the largest settlement ever in a federal investigation of a mine disaster, prosecutors said Tuesday," the wire service now writes. "U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the deal would compensate victims' families, pay fines and improve underground safety. ... The agreement between federal authorities and the new owners of the Upper Big Branch mine includes $46.5 million in criminal restitution to the miners' families, $128 million to fund cutting-edge mine safety upgrades, research and training, and $35 million in penalties for federal mine safety violations, Goodwin said."

Update at 10:55 a.m. ET. Where The Money Will Go:

"There will be cash payments of $500,000 to each family member of someone killed in the disaster as well as to survivors of the disaster and that will take place within 15 days," Howard tells the NPR Newscast desk. "They'll get another $1 million each if they don't have settlements with Alpha Natural Resources [which took over the company that ran the mine] otherwise."

Most of the settlement money, he says, "is going for things like mine safety training" in West Virginia and money Alpha will have to "spend on itself to make safety improvements in its mines — improvements that it may have had to make anyway in the future."

Update at 10:50 a.m. ET. Individuals Could Still Face Criminal Charges:

Howard tells the NPR Newscast desk that this settlement does not preclude criminal charges against Massey Energy executives and managers. Massey was the mine's operator at the time of the disaster. The company has since been taken over by Alpha Resources.

"The U.S. Attorney says that this settlement will not affect his ability to bring criminal charges against individuals," Howard says. "It's a criminal settlement only involving Alpha Resources and Massey Energy as corporate entities."

Update at 10:10 a.m. ET: Based on what Howard's sources are now telling him, it looks like the total will be about $209 million. Earlier, sources were saying $200 million. We've updated our headline and the first line of this post to reflect that change.

Update at 9:52 a.m. ET: The Associated Press is reporting it's been told the settlement will total $210 million and the Charleston Gazette is saying it's "more than $200 million."

Our original post, from 7:30 a.m. ET:

"The owner of West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine is reportedly ready to pay $209 million to settle civil and criminal claims resulting from the explosion that killed 29 people last year," NPR's Howard Berkes reports.

He adds that:

"The settlement was first reported by the Charleston Gazette, and some details were confirmed by NPR. A private briefing about the settlement is scheduled Tuesday morning for the families of the victims. A public announcement is set later in the morning."

Howard has been following the Upper Big Branch disaster story, in posts for us and for NPR's Mine Safety in America series.

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