Friday, December 9, 2011

Upper Big Branch settlement unsettling for miners' families

News of the U.S. government's settlement with the owners of the Upper Big Branch Mine, site of an April 2010 mining disaster, was met with mixed reviews this week. The U.S. Attorney for the southern district of West Virginia announced on Wednesday that Alpha Energy, parent company of Massey Energy, which owns and operates the Upper Big Branch Mine, would pay a grand total of $209 million in restitution and civil and criminal penalties.

But those injured in the explosion and the families of the 29 miners who died in it are not pleased, in spite of the fact that $46.5 million of the settlement money is earmarked for them, $1.5 million per family. The families are unhappy because the terms of the settlement protect Alpha from criminal prosecution, though individual Massey executives are not similarly protected. According to a story in the New York Times,
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're afraid of," said Mark Moreland, a lawyer who represents the families of two victims.
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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.
So far, only the mine's security chief, who is relatively low in Massey's hierarchy, is facing criminal charges.

Many agree that the Mine Safety and Health Administration--roundly criticized in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster (read my post on SALTLaw Blog here)--has stepped up enforcement of the relevant laws. But Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis notes the need for tougher criminal penalties for those who violate the law.

Wednesday's agreement does not stop individual families from pursuing claims against Massey, and eight of those suits have already settled. The $1.5 million per family functions as an offset to any additional jury award or settlement each surviving family is able to achieve or negotiate.

The remainder of the $209 million settlement includes:
  • $80 million to improve safety and infrastructure in all of Alpha and Massey's mines
  • $48 million to establish a mine health and safety foundation and
  • $35 million in fines and fees that Massey owed to the Mine Health and Safety Administration
Earlier posts about the Upper Big Branch disaster--the worst mining accident in 40 years--are here, here, here and here.

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