Coal Tattoo

The Aracoma Mine Fire, Jan. 19, 2006

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the deaths of coal miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield in a fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.

Readers will recall that Massey Energy’s Aracoma Coal Co. pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations that led to their deaths, and paid a record $2.5 million in criminal fines and $1.7 million in civil penalties. Five Massey foreman also pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

But the U.S. Department of Justice and then-U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller agreed to a plea deal with Aracoma Coal in which the government agreed not to prosecute any employees or officers of the corporate parent, Massey Energy. This deal drew much criticism from the widows of Mr. Bragg and Mr. Hatfield.

Prosecutors said they had no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing by Massey or its officers or employees, but lawyers for the families wondered about a key memo that indicated then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship knew about the poor condition of the conveyor belts at Aracoma and knew mine officials were not accurately reporting those conditions on mine safety reports.

Now, the Department of Labor has delayed any public accounting of what happened at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, supposedly to give the Justice Department more time to conduct its ongoing criminal probe of the explosion that killed 29 workers back on April 5, 2010.

What will come of this new criminal investigation? Will prosecutors bring charges against a few mid-level foremen, or will they find and try to punish wrongdoing by anyone further up the corporate ladder?

Labor Department Solicitor Patricia Smith and MSHA chief Joe Main briefed Upper Big Branch families on the progress of their civil investigation last night, and were also scheduled to defend their decision to defer the public hearings … and this morning, Smith and Main are set to brief the media on those same topics.

Stay tuned …