Coal Tattoo

More criminal charges coming in UBB Disaster?

Just who else is U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin looking to prosecute in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster case?

It’s entirely possible that many coal industry critics are under-estimating the potential safety benefits of the $200 million settlement that Goodwin worked out with Massey Energy’s new owner, Alpha Natural Resources. I’ve tried to lay out clearly what Goodwin — and some respected mine safety experts — say are the positives in this story in this morning’s Gazette.

And maybe the rest of us in the media have missed an important story by not writing more about Massey’s union-busting efforts, their possible impacts on miner safety (an issue Mike Elk tackled for In These Times), and whether Alpha’s attitudes toward unions are similar to Massey’s.

But the first sentence of this post is really the question I’m hearing and seeing the most out in the media, from folks who follow the coal industry and from our readers. As my co-worker Kate White explained in this story today, the Upper Big Branch victims’ families certainly aren’t impressed with the settlement and want to see more criminal charges:

Rita Stover said she believes former Massey CEO Don Blankenship should be prosecuted.

“He’s getting off,” she said. “He got to retire. … He’s just as guilty as anybody else. He had to know what was going on.”

And my old buddy, former UMWA President and current AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was his usual to-the-point self:

We await jail time for the culpable .. The only way to make a real down payment on justice is to ensure the guilty serve appropriately stiff jail sentences.

So what do U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his team have going? Wouldn’t we all like to know?

The official statement didn’t give us much, except the very important news that this time around Massey officials didn’t get the deal they got after the deaths of two miners at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in January 2006:

The agreement … addresses only the corporate criminal liability of the former Massey, not potential charges for any individual. The criminal investigation of individuals associated with Massey remains ongoing.

As my buddy Howard Berkes reported this morning for NPR, Goodwin did tell us this when he pressed him repeatedly at yesterday’s press conference:

“Yes,” he told reporters, “our investigation has revealed criminal conduct.”

Regular readers know that so far, only two prosecutions have come from the sprawling UBB investigation: A one-time Massey miner who admitted lied about having a foreman’s card and the company’s long-time safety security director,  Hughie Elbert Stover, pictured above, who was convicted of lying to investigators and trying to destroy documents concerning Massey’s practice of warning underground workers about impending inspections.

Given MSHA’s conclusion that this practice of advance warning of inspections was a contributing factor in the disaster, it’s worth reconsidering whether we can truly keep saying that neither criminal case so far had anything directly to do with the deaths. But it’s still important to remember that Booth Goodwin, while talking pretty tough about his commitment to the investigation, has also been clear about the difficulties of going after upper-level corporate officials for criminal conduct. There is plenty of evidence — some already made public by the McAteer report and some outlined in documents MSHA released yesterday — of widespread criminal conduct regarding falsification of mine safety examination reports. Will any of those folks make deals, providing information about higher-up corporate officials to avoid tougher charges themselves?

Again, though, Goodwin was clear: His investigation has found criminal conduct by individuals who have not yet been charged. He says he’s going after those individuals:

Our investigation is far from over.