You are hereNew York Times: Mine Owner Will Pay $209 Million in Blast That Killed 29 Workers

New York Times: Mine Owner Will Pay $209 Million in Blast That Killed 29 Workers

-By Sabrina Tavernise and Clifford Krauss

December 6, 2011- In what officials say is the largest settlement ever in a government investigation of a mine disaster, Alpha Natural Resources agreed to pay $209 million in restitution and civil and criminal penalties for the role of its subsidiary, Massey Energy, in a mine explosion last year that killed 29 men in West Virginia.

The deal includes $46.5 million for the families of the victims and those who were injured in the blast, and includes terms that protect Alpha — but not individual Massey executives — from criminal prosecution, said Steven R. Ruby, an assistant United States attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.

But for the families of the miners killed in the accident — the worst such disaster in 40 years — the settlement was justice denied. Many were hoping for criminal charges against the people who ran Massey, the company that, according to the federal government’s own review, knowingly put their relatives in harm’s way.

“Families believe that senior executives should be prosecuted, but they don’t have any great faith that they will be, and that’s what they are afraid of,” said Mark Moreland, a lawyer who represents the families of two victims.

Federal prosecutors say they are trying to do just that, pursuing cases against a number of individuals involved in the explosion. But industry observers warned that because of weak mining safety laws, prosecutors face a steep uphill battle pursuing the biggest prize — criminal convictions of the powerful people who ran Massey.

Under the federal mine act, safety violations, with the exception of falsifying records, are categorized as misdemeanors. That limitation that could make it hard to build a case against senior managers, like Don Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey, lawyers said.

In all, 18 Massey executives have refused to be interviewed by federal investigators, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights.

“Until someone goes to jail, there will be no justice done here,” said Cecil E. Roberts, president of United Mine Workers of America International.

Only the mine’s security chief at the time of the blast, Hughie Stover, is facing criminal charges so far. But observers said he was so low in the hierarchy that any sentence would do little to satisfy the families.

Proposed changes to the mine act did not make it out of the House at the end of the last session of Congress, because of what a Democratic staff member on the Education and Workforce Committee described as an intense lobbying effort by the coal industry. A sponsor of the bill, Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, called on Congress to “close gaping loopholes that allow some mine operators to put their miners at needless risk.”

Tony Oppegard, a lawyer based in Kentucky who represents miners, said, “Even though you have the biggest mine disaster in 40 years, there’s been absolutely no federal legislation flowing from it.”



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