Coal Tattoo

Remembering the Aracoma Mine Fire

Aracoma coal miner Billy Mayhorn is greeted by his wife, Sharon, late Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006, in Melville, W.Va. Mayhorn was one of 19 miners who escaped after a fire broke out on a conveyor belt at the Alma No. 1 Mine.   AP Photo/The Logan Banner, Jerry Fekete

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

We’ve recounted this horrible story many times before:

On Jan. 19, 2006, a fire broke out in the belt take-up storage unit for the Aracoma Mine’s longwall conveyor belt. A crew of workers, including Bragg and Hatfield, ran into thick, black smoke in their escape tunnel and had to find another way out. Ten men from the crew escaped. Bragg and Hatfield somehow became separated from the group, got lost and eventually succumbed to the smoke.

MSHA investigators had cited a variety of major safety violations that led to the fire, including “prolonged operation” of a misaligned conveyor belt and allowing large spills of combustible coal dust and grease to build up on the belt.

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. (Blankenship later said he thought he had ordered the problems fixed)

Two years ago, I wondered in an Aracoma anniversary post whether U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s criminal investigation of the deaths of 29 more Massey miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine would really 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?

In the last year, we’ve seen very interesting action in the Upper Big Branch probe. Just last Thursday, former mine superintendent Gary May was sentenced to 21 months in prison after he pleaded guilty. Late next month, former Massey official David C. Hughart is scheduled to enter a guilty plea. May and Hughart have both admitted to being part of a conspiracy to violate mine safety laws, cover up those violations, and thwart government inspections at Massey operations.  By its very nature, a conspiracy charge means May and Hughart weren’t acting alone, and Goodwin has made it clear his investigation is continuing. But Goodwin isn’t saying who he is targeting — or even really how high up or how broadly within Massey conspiracy charges could be brought, let alone proven.

On Friday, Goodwin went on statewide talk radio again with Hoppy Kercheval, to try to publicly get across his message that mine safety crimes won’t be tolerated on his watch. But Goodwin again dodged the issue of exactly where he believes responsibility for the 29 deaths at Upper Big Branch resides:

What we have seen and what you can glean from the charges that have been filed so far is this kind of thing happened beyond Upper Big Branch. We are going to take this investigation wherever it leads. If that leads further up in the organization or further out in the company structure, we are going to take it there.

We are trying to see to it that another Upper Big Branch never happens again and to hold accountable those who were responsible.

It’s understandable, I suppose, that Goodwin doesn’t want to name names. But it’s a little surprising that he won’t confirm that his office believes the conspiracy at Massey was “corporate-wide company policy” — a term that Gary May’s lawyer used in court documents, citing a secret probation department report.

In the meantime, the Bragg and Hatfield widows, with their lawyer Bruce Stanley, are bravely continuing a separate effort to get to the bottom of and hold responsible others who may have played a role in the Aracoma Mine deaths. We’re waiting now to see what the state Supreme Court does with their case against the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration over the agency’s lax enforcement of mine safety standards prior to the fire.

So stay tuned … and pray for the coal miners.