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December 07, 2011
Massey Energy Parent Fined $209 Million for Fatal Mine Disaster
    by Robert Kropp

The Mine Safety and Health Administration says that corporate culture at Massey was the root cause of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 workers.

The worst coal mining disaster in 40 years occurred at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April, 2010, when a coal dust explosion killed 29 miners and injured two. The mine was owned by Massey Energy and operated by Performance Coal, a subsidiary.

In a report on the disaster issued yesterday, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) laid the blame for it squarely on the poor corporate governance practices of Massey.

The report states, "The evidence accumulated during the investigation demonstrates that PCC/Massey promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law."

"The investigation also revealed multiple examples of systematic, intentional, and aggressive efforts by PCC/Massey to avoid compliance with safety and health standards, and to thwart detection of that non-compliance by federal and state regulators," the report continued.

MSHA issued 369 citations and orders, included an "unprecedented" 21 citations for flagrant violations. The violations include intimidation of workers to prevent them from reporting safety concerns; using staff to relay advance notice of health and safety inspections to mine personnel; and keeping two sets of books on safety and health hazards at the mine. A set of books that was not shared with regulators documented safety and health hazards that were not included in the public books.

In the largest settlement ever for a mine disaster, Alpha Natural Resources, the parent company of Massey Energy, agreed to pay $209 million in restitution, including $46.5 million for the families of the miners who were killed or injured.

Before yesterday's release of the report, the Justice Department reached a non-prosecution agreement which, according to MSHA, "Resolves criminal liability for Alpha but does not provide protection against criminal prosecution of any individuals." The agreement allows Massey Energy to escape prosecution, and even admit to no wrongdoing, as well.

"Although this agreement is significant, it in no way absolves any individuals responsible for this terrible tragedy of their criminal liability," Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said. "We will continue to cooperate with the US Attorney's Office to ensure that the responsible parties will be brought to justice."

The brother of one miner killed responded angrily to the settlement, stating, "It was an act of murder. They murdered 29 men, and I'm not satisfied one bit."

The former security chief of the mine, Hughie Stover, is awaiting sentencing after his conviction for attempting to destroy evidence and providing mine personnel with advance notice of safety inspections.

In the New York Times, former Justice Department official David Uhlmann wrote, "We can only hope that when it comes to the other unfathomable disaster that took place in April 2010, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, justice will be better served."


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