Also Tuesday, a new government report detailed the world inside the mine on April 5, 2010 — where modern men went underground to face problems out of the 19th century. Miners worked amid pockets of neck-high water and buildups of explosive methane and coal dust. Their bosses kept two sets of safety logs, a real one and a fake one to show government inspectors.
“If basic safety measures had been in place,” said the report, from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, there would have been no loss of life.”
The settlement requires Alpha to pay $1.5 million each to the families of 29 dead and two injured miners.
It also requires the company to spend at least $80 million on measures intended to prevent another disaster: better air monitors inside mines and new devices to provide oxygen for suffocating men.
“You can’t trade lives for money,” was the message to the coal industry as a whole, said Davitt McAteer, a mine-safety expert who led the state of West Virginia’s inquiry into the disaster. “You have to make it hurt enough, and try to make them pay attention.”
McAteer said that the Upper Big Branch disaster was a reminder of how little had changed in mining since the days of canaries and dynamite. The Upper Big Branch miners were killed by the same unsolved safety problems that caused the country’s worst mining disaster, at Monongah, W.Va., in 1907.
“It was coal dust. It was ventilation” problems, McAteer said. “Same [stuff], 104 years later.”
Tuesday’s agreement will end the threat of federal prosecution for Alpha as a company. Its penalties also include $48 million, to be placed in a trust for mine safety research, and $34.8 million to pay off Massey’s outstanding fines for safety violations.
“What I hope they get from it is that they can’t just write a check and make an investigation go away,” U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II said in a telephone interview Tuesday night. “They have to have a commitment to incorporating . . . real, tangible safety measures.”
The agreement would still allow Massey executives and managers to be charged as individuals. So far, only one has been prosecuted — mine security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, who was convicted last month of lying to investigators and trying to destroy mine records.
Miners’ families can still pursue lawsuits against Alpha. But prosecutors said that, if a future judge awards them more than $1.5 million, Alpha can subtract that amount from their settlement.