The current owner of the West Virginia mine where an explosion last year killed 29 workers has agreed to pay a record $209 million in penalties and restitution to settle an array of civil and criminal charges.
U.S. Department of Justice officials today announced the settlement, which stems from the nation’s worst mine disaster in four decades. In a news release, Attorney General Eric Holder said it “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.”
First reported by The Charleston Gazette, the settlement will cover civil penalties and the potential criminal liability of Alpha Natural Resources Inc., which bought mine owner Massey Energy in June. However, the settlement does not resolve any potential criminal violations by Massey personnel, and The Wall Street Journal reports that prosecutors say their criminal investigation is continuing.
The only Massey official prosecuted so far in connection with the disaster was the former security chief at the mine, who has been convicted in federal court of obstructing a criminal investigation and lying to investigators.
The settlement was disclosed hours before the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced that it imposed a fine of $10.8 million, the biggest fine in the agency’s history, in connection with the disaster. The fine was included in the $209 million settlement.
The mine safety agency also released a report blaming Massey’s hazardous practices and corporate culture as “the root cause” of the tragedy. The regulators found that Massey allowed coal dust to build up, fueling the explosion. They brushed aside a Massey investigation that contended that the blast was caused by a surge of natural gas that couldn’t have been prevented.
In all, the safety agency issued 369 citations, including 12 that it said directly contributed to the accident. Nine of those were labeled “flagrant,” the most serious issued by the agency, including failing to properly test for methane and to clean up combustible coal dust.
The Journal added that the agreement does not address the 18 pending wrongful death lawsuits filed by some of the families of miners who were killed. Under the settlement, however, Alpha Resources will pay $1.5 million to each of the families of the 29 miners killed and to two survivors, an overall sum of $46.5 million.
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