Criminal Investigation of Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster Yields $209 Million Settlement

Dec. 6, 2011
The criminal investigation of the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, which claimed the lives of 29 miners in Montcoal, W.Va., in the nation's deadliest mine disaster in 40 years, has resulted in a $209 million settlement. The agreement encompasses the corporate criminal liability of the former Massey Energy Co., which owned the mine, and not potential criminal charges for any individual. The criminal investigation of individuals associated with Massey remains ongoing.

Alpha Natural Resources Inc., the company that took control of Massey’s operations in June 2011, agreed to make payments and safety investments that will amount to $209 million. Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II for the District of West Virginia and officials with the FBI and Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General announced the settlement agreement on Dec. 6.

"The tragedy at Upper Big Branch will never be forgotten, and the families affected by it will never be made completely whole again," said Attorney General Eric Holder. "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."

While this agreement represents the largest-ever resolution in a criminal investigation of a mine disaster, not all safety stakeholders agree it is enough to compensate for the 29 lives lost in the Upper Big Branch Mine.

"A civil settlement is not enough," stressed Justin Feldman, Public Citizen’s worker health and safety advocate. "Reckless corporate activity that results in the death of dozens of workers must be punished with criminal prosecutions."

Under the agreement, Alpha will pay criminal restitution of $1.5 million to each of the families of the 29 miners who died and to the two individuals who were injured, for a total restitution payment of $46.5 million.

Remedial Safety Measures

As part of the non-prosecution agreement, Alpha also will invest at least $80 million in mine safety improvements at all of its underground mines, including those formerly owned by Massey.

These remedial safety measures include: installing digital monitoring systems in all underground mines; ensuring each underground mine has the necessary personnel and resources to meet legal requirements concerning incombustible materials and accumulations of coal dust and loose coal; purchasing state-of-the-art equipment to monitor mines for explosive concentrations of coal dust; purchasing next-generation rock dusting equipment (pending MSHA approval); purchasing oxygen cascading systems to help miners make their way to safety in the event of a serious accident; and building a state-of-the-art training facility and implementing a full training curriculum for Alpha miners, which will be available to other mining companies.

Additionally, as part of the agreement, Alpha 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 efforts to enhance mine safety. Alpha also will pay a total of up to $34.8 million in penalties owed to MSHA, including all penalties that arise from the Upper Big Branch accident investigation.

"Collectively, these requirements will set a new standard for what can and should be done to protect miners," said U.S. Attorney Goodwin. "We look forward to a future in which coal mining is as safe as any other occupation."

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