CHARLESTON, W.Va. (Legal Newsline) - The Justice Department on Tuesday announced an agreement with Alpha Natural Resources totaling nearly $210 million in payments connected to the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster.
An explosion on April 5, 2010, claimed the lives of 29 miners at the site, which was then owned by Massey Energy. Alpha took over Massey in a merger earlier this year.
The agreement announced Tuesday -- which coincidentally was West Virginia Miner's Day -- is the largest ever for the resolution of a criminal investigation of a mine disaster. A press release from U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin says the agreement "addresses only the corporate criminal liability of the former Massey, not potential criminal charges for any individual."
"The criminal investigation of individuals associated with Massey remains ongoing," the release said. "Alpha has cooperated with the federal criminal investigation since the merger, in addition to implementing a number of safety improvements."
Under the agreement, Alpha will invest at least $80 million in mine safety enhancements at all its underground mines, including those formerly owned by Massey. Alpha also will place $48 million in a mine health and safety research trust, to be used to fund academic and non-profit research that will advance mine safety.
Also, Alpha will make restitution of a total of $46.5 million ($1.5 million each) to the families of the 29 miners who died at UBB and to the two individuals who were injured. And, Alpha will pay all penalties owed to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), including all penalties that arise from the UBB accident investigation, for a total of up to $34.8 million.
On a related note, the MSHA report released Tuesday said the 29 UBB deaths were "entirely preventable" and that the explosion was the result of "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" by the mine owners. Alpha was fined nearly $11 million in civil penalties for the UBB disaster.
The remedial safety measures included in Tuesday's agreement include the following:
* Alpha will install digital monitoring systems in all its underground mines to continuously monitor compliance with ventilation requirements and make sure mines are free of potentially explosive methane gas.
* In another measure designed to prevent future mine explosions, Alpha will implement a plan to ensure that each of its underground mines has the personnel and resources necessary to meet all legal requirements concerning incombustible material and accumulations of coal dust and loose coal.
* Alpha will purchase state-of-the-art equipment to monitor its mines for explosive concentrations of coal dust and use that equipment in all its underground mines.
* Alpha will purchase next-generation rock dusting equipment (pending MSHA approval), further enhancing its ability to combat explosion hazards.
* Alpha will install cutting-edge oxygen cascading systems to help miners make their way to safety if a serious accident should occur in an Alpha mine.
* Alpha also will build a state-of-the-art training facility and implement a full training curriculum. The facility will be used to train Alpha miners and also will be available to other mining companies.
"The tragedy at Upper Big Branch will never be forgotten, and the families affected by it will never be made completely whole again," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a release. "Today's agreement represents the largest-ever resolution in a criminal investigation of a mine disaster and will ensure appropriate steps are taken to improve mine safety now and will fund research to enhance mine safety in the future.
While we continue to investigate individuals associated with this tragedy, this historic agreement -- one of the largest payments ever for workplace safety crimes of any type -- will help to create safer work environments for miners in West Virginia and across the country."
"Collectively, these requirements will set a new standard for what can and should be done to protect miners," he said. "My hope is Alpha's adoption of the measures contained in this resolution will give the rest of the industry a strong push to follow suit.
"The research and development component of this agreement holds the promise of breakthroughs that will transform mine safety in the coming decades. The fund announced today will jump-start innovation and put brilliant minds to work on the risks that coal miners face. We look forward to a future in which coal mining is as safe as any other occupation.
"There should never be another UBB, and this announcement is aimed squarely at that goal. For far too long, we've accepted the idea that catastrophic accidents are an inherent risk of being a coal miner. It's long past time we put that myth to rest. We believe that this agreement does that."
West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was pleased with the agreement.
"On this National Miner's Day, an agreement to do what is right for the safety of our miners is welcomed," Tomblin said. "The fines, victim's restitution, and safety programs that will be funded through this settlement are a strong commitment to improving mine safety."
Tomblin also praised Alpha.
"I commend Alpha Natural Resources, who did not own UBB or Massey Energy at the time of the disaster, for dedicating millions of dollars toward research and safety equipment using the latest technology available for its mines as a means to prevent another tragedy," Tomblin said. "To me, this speaks volumes as to Alpha's commitment to the men and women who labor each and every day to provide us with the coal we need for our energy demands.
"It is my hope that this settlement will further encourage our corporate partners-in the coal industry and others-to take a keen look at their practices, update their safety measures, and develop new technologies to protect, precious human life."
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also issued a statement.
"Nothing in these or any other announcements can truly ease the pain suffered on that awful day when we lost 29 brave miners at Upper Big Branch," Rockefeller said. "If we do everything in our power to learn from the UBB disaster and make other mines safer, we can take some meaningful consolation in these developments.
"It is a significant step forward for coal miners, their families, and the coal industry that Massey's new parent company, Alpha Resources, will pay an unprecedented sum -- more than $200 million -- for mine safety investments, partial restitution for families and a trust fund for research to improve miner's safety and health. And it is equally important that the U.S. Attorney's office held its ground regarding ongoing criminal investigations, so that individual officers and agents of Massey can be held fully accountable for their actions."
Rockefeller said miners and their families deserve reforms to make mines safer and to penalize wrongdoing.
"My office has already been in touch with some of the families to hear from them about today's announcements," he said. "With the families' concerns and perspectives foremost in my mind, I intend to review the details of this report and settlement more closely in the coming days, and I will keep pushing my colleagues in Congress to vote for new mine safety reforms.
"On this day, as we pause to mark West Virginia Miner's Day, it's worth noting that it's been 104 years and we still are trying to enact laws to give miners and families safer working conditions."