UBB settlement: Who will pay for 29 lives?

December 6, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

It’s raining this morning here in Charleston. The fog was hanging over the Kanawha River on my drive in. Like always, there was a Friend of Coal ad on the local radio station. But over at the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse, the lights were already burning.

In a few hours, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin will announce details of a landmark settlement in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, a deal that calls for Alpha Natural Resources — which bought UBB mine owner Massey Energy in June — to spend $200 million on major safety initiatives, civil penalties related to the mine disaster and other former Massey mines, and restitution to the families of the 29 miners who died and the two miners who were hurt in the April 2010 explosion.

UPDATED: Here’s a link to our news story with details of the settlement, and you can read the agreement for yourself here.

We first reported the broad scope of the settlement last night, based on information provided by sources who have been briefed on the government’s deal.  More media stories have followed from the Wall Street Journal and from our friend Howard Berkes at NPR, whose story early this morning indicated some displeasure with the deal from the families and their lawyers:

“It’s so wrong,” says Judy Jones Petersen, a Charleston physician whose brother Dean Jones died in the explosion. Petersen is upset by what she sees as a release of some criminal liability for the deaths of 29 men in exchange for a $200 million payment. “It’s so absolutely wrong on the very deepest level of what is moral and right.”

Attorneys Rachel and Mark Moreland, who represent two families of Upper Big Branch victims, also reacted with anger.

“$200 million for the lives of 29 men certainly doesn’t bring justice to the families of those dead miners,” says Mark Moreland.

The families and everyone else will be better able to judge the Justice Department’s deal later today, when more details are provided to families during a conference call at 9:30 a.m. and to the rest of us at an 11 a.m. press conference.

This much we do know: This settlement is unprecedented. Nearly two-thirds of the settlement money is dedicated to mine safety improvements and to advancing the cause of mine safety research. Some of the improvements would implement recommendations made by the independent Upper Big Branch investigation team, led by longtime safety advocate Davitt McAteer.

And as for the question I heard most often from sources and observers last night and this morning, I’m told the settlement most absolutely does not give a pass to any employees, officers, board members, executives — you name it — of the former Massey Energy who are found to have committed crimes related to the disaster, mine safety problems at Upper Big Branch, or impeding the government’s investigation of the explosion.

Keep in mind how different this is from the deal Massey Energy got from prosecutors following the deaths of two miners at its Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County in January 2006.  Under a plea agreement with Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co., then-U.S. Attorney Charles Miller agreed never to prosecute any officers or employees of the Massey parent company for any actions related to the fatal fire. Interestingly, Miller’s office also signed documents in which they said the government just didn’t have any evidence against anyone from Massey, despite possessing a memo that raised questions about what Massey CEO Don Blankenship knew about the condition of conveyor belts at Aracoma prior to the belt fire that killed miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield.

This time, there’s no promise not to go after individuals who committed mine safety crimes, and no statement from the government that they don’t have any evidence of such crimes — and the U.S. Attorney’s criminal probe will continue after today’s deal.

Over the weekend, we published a story outlining questions about what Massey’s board knew about conditions at Upper Big Branch, about what the board was being told, and what — if any — actions were taken as a result of safety problems pointed out by a former MSHA inspector Massey hired to audit the operation before the disaster.  When I asked U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin last week about these issues, and about whether his investigation would end with the release today of the MSHA report on the disaster, he told me:

Any information of that nature that would come to light would be of interest to us. We’re not limiting the focus of our investigation at all. We are not slowing down at all. If anything, certain aspects of our investigation are going into high gear.

8 Responses to “UBB settlement: Who will pay for 29 lives?”

  1. New Age Miner says:

    It seems upsetting to me to find out that Massey employee and former MSHA District Manager Joe Pavlovich knew of the UBB rock dust inadequecy. Quoting your article over the weekend;
    “The next day, Nov. 10, Pavlovich went to Upper Big Branch again, and found serious rock-dusting problems in the longwall section.
    “No rock dust had been applied to the roof and the ribs had only been rock-dusted by hand,” his report said. “The entry had never been machine dusted as the section advanced.”
    This is so unacceptable. If his role was to find hazardous conditions why wasn’t his suggestions followed up on? Who did he report to? If he, Elizabeth Chamberlin, Don Blankenship, etc., KNEW of this hazardous condition, why, why, why on God’s green Earth didn’t they just follow up with rock dusting the mine?
    Didn’t UBB hold some kind of world record for coal production? Maybe maintaining that record and lining the pockets of those who plead the 5th with money is why.

  2. old one says:

    My take is why didn’t Joe P just call the Dist Manager Bob Hardman and report to him the conditions he found. Didn’t Joe P also do the internal investagation of Martin Co. Coal slurry spill when he was Dist Manager of dist 7?

  3. hilljilly says:

    Ken, Thanks for your amazing work. So grateful to have your reporting as a lifeline to news from home.

  4. JR in WV says:

    Ken,

    I question the need for “research” into mine health and safety. After all, in the 1980s we were told that black lung was a disease of the past, since continuous water spray at cutting heads and beltway intersections reduced respirable dust to a fraction of the normal dust conditions in a dry working environment.

    And as for explosions, we knew when the great disaster struck in Farmington how to control methane levels and dust to prevent explosions: monitor methane levels to prevent ignition sources when methane levels are between 5% and 15%; to reduce or eliminate dust explosions, remove dust as far as possible, and dilute remaining dust with powdered limestone. I knew this 20 or 30 years ago just by living in the coalfields and reading the literature.

    This isn’t hi-tech, and we’ve understood it for generations. But when a company boss, like Brother Donald, tells the men that they are to move coal without regard to maintenance and safety, well, no amount of research will solve that problem. We don’t have a cure for heartlessness, and won’t, ever.

    Prosecution for homicide when people are killed by working in environments that we know will kill them, either swiftly by explosion or slowly, agonizingly by black lung, now that may reduce these cruel deaths. We now see young miners, in their 30s, afflicted with black lung. Much like allowing people to die from whooping cough – these are preventable diseases.

    Until these millionaires are indicted and convicted for their crimes against the humanity they employ we will see an annual death toll that no civilized society should tolerate. It is a crime to create conditions that are known to lead to death, unless no one is willing to prosecute the guilty.

    Keep shining the light in the dark corners!

  5. FireGuy says:

    JR is right – mitigation of mine hazards has been understood for a long time…and it’s not rocket science in most cases…McAteer in his report pointed out a larger travesty – why miners don’t wear respirators due to peer pressure issues! Develop a better way to prevent ingestion of coal dust to overcome this!

  6. Pragmatic Realist says:

    Presumably the safety measures paid for with this money will result in improvements to Alpha’s mines that will make them safer, more efficient and productive, things that they should have been paying for all along. So where’s the penalty?

  7. hebintn says:

    Don Blankenship was the top dog and THE person who set policy at Massey. He is the individual who decided if his company was going to show concern for the safety of the miners. He decided that things were good enough. He is responsible for the UBB disaster. He is the person who should go to jail. Will that happen? Of course not. Why? He has too many high place friends. Bernard Madoff made the decision to steal money from his investors and he went to jail. I see the CEO at Massey in the same light.

  8. Gary Quarles says:

    I am the dad of Gary Wayne Quarles.He is 1 of the 29 miners that was killed in the U.B.B explosion.I just want to say that I have 34 yrs.undergrond and I could’t have said it any better than what JR in WV said. The federal and state inspectors knew who they were dealing with and Massey didn’t care nothing about their men of safety at all.All they had was then to help them and they failed them too!!!

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