Coal Tattoo

The Aracoma Mine Fire, Jan. 19, 2006

My thoughts today are with the families of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield, the two coal miners who died six years ago in that terrible fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.

As I wrote a year ago on this date, 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 none of them went to jail.

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.

In last year’s anniversary post, I questioned whether the criminal investigation of the deaths of 29 more Massey miners at the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine would end any differently:

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?

Over the last few months, we’ve seen a flurry of action on Upper Big Branch.  In late October, the mine’s longtime security director, Hughie Elbert Stover, was convicted of two felonies, with a jury finding that he lied to investigators and tried to destroy evidence about Massey’s habit of warning underground workers of impending safety inspections — a practice that federal inspectors say played a major role in the April 5, 2010, disaster.  Stover faces up to 25 years in prison. Already, a former Massey miner had pleaded guilty to faking foreman’s credentials while he spent almost two years performing safety inspections for the company at Upper Big Branch. While there’s no direct evidence the actions of Thomas Harrah played any role in the disaster, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger sentenced Harrah to 10 months in prison.

Then in December, as the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration was preparing to issue the report of its investigation into Upper Big Branch, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced that his office had reached a landmark deal with Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey last June. Alpha would agree to spend tens of millions of dollars on mine safety improvements, and Goodwin would agree not to bring any criminal charges against the company.

And just last week, the remaining families of the Upper Big Branch miners settled their wrongful death cases, agreeing to a deal through with Alpha will pay them undisclosed amounts of money to resolve those cases and allow the company to, essentially, turn the page on the disaster it inherited from Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

The families have made it clear that they want justice — not just money. As one of the family lawyers, Tim Bailey, told me:

Compensation is one thing, but justice is another. Based on what happened at this mine, there is not going to be justice until some people are indicted and some people go to jail.

Will more people go to jail? Well, we know that the Alpha-Justice Department deal does not include language to protect any individual officers, agents or employees of Massey from prosecution … and U.S. Attorney Goodwin has said his office has uncovered other crimes for which the appropriate individuals have not yet been charged.  The question is — will Goodwin and his staff find a way to bring charges against these individuals and to make those charges stick? A more cynical person that I might also ask if higher-ranking officials at the Justice Department, with Goodwin’s Alpha deal already in their pockets, think it’s time to move on and pressure Goodwin to just drop it?

West Virginia political leaders certainly don’t have the stomach for much more talk about 29 coal miners getting blow up … Every chance they get, our local elected officials encourage us all to forget about the bad old days of Massey, and focus on the new leadership at Alpha (the “new ownership in Southern West Virginia“, as my friend Rep. Nick Rahall likes to say), forgetting about Alpha’s willingness to keep some top Massey managers on board — and about the fact that Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield can’t seem to bring himself to say publicly that UBB could have easily have been prevented and wasn’t any sort of Act of God. It takes a congressman from California — ranking Democrat on the Labor Committee, George Miller — to bother to ask Crutchfield about any of this.

Before anyone in the federal government decides they should just drop this criminal probe, I wonder if it might be worth them being put into a room for a while with the widows of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield or at least read what their lawyer, Bruce Stanley, told me last month:

Sadly, aggressive prosecution against upper management in the Aracoma case might have spared us the horror of UBB. We’ll never know, of course. But we certainly hope that the lesson of making deals with the devil has been learned, that the criminal investigation makes its way into the boardroom as well as the guard shack, and that Alpha chooses a different path than its predecessor.