$210 million settlement in Upper Big Branch mine explosion

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Millions of dollars are heading their way, but the windfall brings little comfort to relatives of 29 men who died last year in one of the worst mining disasters in American history.

Alpha Natural Resources agreed to a $209.5 million settlement -- including restitution and criminal penalties -- for the role of its newly acquired subsidiary, Massey Energy, in the April 2010 disaster at Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.

Of that, $46.5 million was allocated to families of the victims. Also included in the settlement is $128 million to fund cutting-edge mine safety upgrades, research and training, and $35 million in penalties for federal mine safety violations.

The settlement protects the company, but not its individual employees, from criminal prosecution in connection with the deaths.


Officials from Alpha did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"Everybody thinks it's like these families won the lottery, but they lost husbands and fathers and sons," said Dallas Peters, whose son-in-law Edward "Dean" Jones was killed, leaving behind a wife and a teenage son. "How much is your dear loved one worth? What is a life worth? You can't put a price on that?"

"Dean was more than a son-in-law. He was a buddy to me, a pal to me. He did things for me that I'm not able to do and nobody asked him to do anything," he said. "It's been real hard for all of us," he said -- even the family's yellow laborador retriever, who still sits outside to wait for his master every afternoon at 4:30, the time he would have returned from work.

Mr. Peters blames Massey for his son-in-law's death and is glad the company is accepting some responsibility, but he holds federal mine officials more culpable. They're the ones, he said, who let Massey keep operating despite inspectors' findings of dangerous violations.

Mr. Peters is hoping the Mine Safety and Health Administration's failures will be revealed in a detailed internal report scheduled for release today.

But in that report , the agency focused mainly on Massey and its subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., which operated the mine. The Mine Safety and Health Administration levied its largest-ever fine against Massey and Performance Coal -- $10,825,368 -- and issued 369 citations and orders to the two companies, including a record 21 flagrant violations.

In a statement issued with the report, Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said she hoped the fines and citations sent the industry a message. "The results of the investigation lead to the conclusion that PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, and broke the law as they endangered the lives of their miners," she said in the statement.

Because of a non-prosecution clause in this morning's settlement, the company cannot be held criminally liable for the report's findings, only individual employees.

The report concludes that ignited methane and sparks from outdated equipment, coupled with already unsafe working conditions, triggered a "massive coal dust explosion" that sent miners scrambling 400 feet away from their regular work area in a futile attempt to escape.

They likely had a few minutes before the fire ignited a methane and causing an explosion.

United Mine Workers International said it was disappointed with the settlement.

"We are very disappointed that the settlement apparently includes a 'non-prosecution' clause," union president Cecil E. Roberts said. "We remain hopeful that responsibility will be placed where it belongs: on upper-level management at Massey who created the safety-last culture at that company. We firmly believe the evidence is there for such criminal prosecution. Until someone goes to jail, there will be no justice done here."

Read the full Mine Safety and Health Administration report .

Tracie Mauriello: 703-996-9292 or tmauriello@post-gazette.com .


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