Coal Tattoo

UBB settlement: Who will pay for 29 lives?

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.