$210M settlement reached in W.Va. mine explosion

The new owners of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 men were killed in an explosion agreed Tuesday to pay a record $210 million in penalties over what the government called an "entirely preventable" tragedy caused by the pursuit of profits ahead of safety.

It is the biggest settlement ever reached in a U.S. mining disaster, and the money will go to compensate grieving families, bankroll cutting-edge safety improvements and pay for years of violations.

Under the deal, Alpha Natural Resources — which acquired the mine's owner, Massey Energy, earlier this year — will not be charged with any crimes in the April 2010 blast at the Upper Big Branch mine as long as the company abides by the settlement, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said. But the agreement does not prevent individual employees from being prosecuted.

"No individuals are off the hook," Goodwin said, adding that federal prosecutors are still investigating.

Hours after the settlement was announced, federal regulators released a final report detailing 369 safety violations at the mine, including 12 that it said contributed to the blast. Fines related to those violations account for $10.8 million of the settlement, and the company is required to pay further fines for violations dating back several years.

In a private meeting with the families of the fallen miners in Beaver, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said the settlement "can go a long way toward changing a safety culture that was clearly broken at Massey's mines" and pledged the agency's cooperation with ongoing criminal investigations.

MSHA labeled nine of the contributing violations at the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal flagrant, the most serious designation. The flagrant violations include illegal warnings to miners underground that were on site and failure to conduct proper safety inspections.

MSHA has long said Massey Energy allowed dangerous accumulations of highly explosive methane gas and coal dust and blamed worn and broken cutting equipment for creating the spark that ignited that fuel. Broken water sprayers that could have contained a small flare-up didn't work, allowing a chain reaction of blasts to rip through miles of underground tunnels and kill men instantly.

"Every time Massey sent miners into the UBB Mine, Massey put those miners' lives at risk," said MSHA director Joe Main. "Massey management created a culture of fear and intimidation in their miners to hide their reckless practices. Today's report brings to light the tragic consequences of a corporate culture that values production over people."

The agency also said it will conduct an internal review of MSHA's actions at Upper Big Branch before and after the explosion. Relatives of the victims and officials with the United Mine Workers of America have rebuked the agency for failing to use all the tools it had to shut down a mine it should have known was dangerous.

Goodwin, the federal prosecutor, noted that agreeing to the settlement "requires a recognition that there was criminal conduct at play."

That wrongdoing includes violating federal mine safety laws, lying to investigators about health and safety issues, and obstructing federal regulators, the agreement said. The settlement allows investigators to increase their focus on the people responsible, Goodwin said, declining to comment on when any charges might be filed or against whom.

Criminal charges in the disaster have been brought against only one person so far: the mine's security chief at the time of the blast, Hughie Elbert Stover. A federal jury convicted him last month of lying to investigators and trying to destroy mine records following the explosion. He is awaiting sentencing.

The settlement includes $46.5 million in criminal restitution to the miners' families, $128 million for cutting-edge mine-safety improvements, research and training, and $35 million in penalties for years of safety violations at Upper Big Branch and other mines operated by Massey. Goodwin said the agreement reflects "a new standard for what can and must be done to protect miners" and cited the Virginia-based Alpha's status as the second-largest U.S. coal producer.

"''This delivers an enormous impact for the health and safety of miners all across Alpha, and hopefully all across the industry," Goodwin said, adding that "''The rest of the industry now has no excuse to shrink from the challenge."

MSHA says its investigation found "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" by Massey and its subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., to throw regulators off from safety problems the company knew existed. It did that by maintaining two sets of safety inspection record books, one with faked data giving the impression there were minimal concerns, and a more accurate, production-oriented record the company used to keep the coal flowing.

"Massey knew or should have known about all of these hazards but failed to take corrective action to prevent a catastrophic accident," it says.

MSHA also confirmed witnesses' complaints that Massey intimidated workers to keep them from reporting safety problems and slowing down or stopping production. Because they knew their jobs were in jeopardy, the report says, miners didn't make whistleblower reports to MSHA.

Performance Coal President Chris Blanchard told one miner, "If you don't start running coal up there, I'm going to bring the whole crew outside and get rid of every one of you," the report recounts.

MSHA says interviews also revealed that a top company official suspended a section foreman who delayed production for one or two hours to make safety corrections.