- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 6, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The West Virginia coal mine blast that killed 29 men has yielded a wide-ranging and historic $210 million settlement proposal to compensate victims’ families, pay fines and improve underground safety in response to the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in decades, an attorney with knowledge of the settlement told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

The agreement between federal authorities and the new owners of the Upper Big Branch mine includes $46.5 million in criminal restitution to the miners’ families; $128 million to fund cutting-edge mine safety upgrades, research and training; and $35 million in penalties for federal mine safety violations. It also does not prevent the future prosecutions of individuals on criminal charges in the April 2010 blast.

The person was not authorized to talk about the details before an official announcement and asked for anonymity. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin of West Virginia’s southern federal court district, has scheduled a Tuesday-morning press conference at the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, meanwhile, was expected to brief the victims’ families and then the media Tuesday on its final report from the disaster. Federal investigators previously have blamed the Raleigh County blast on a combination of methane gas, coal dust, and broken or malfunctioning equipment in the underground mine.

Massey Energy Co. operated Upper Big Branch through a subsidiary at the time of the explosion. The Virginia-based Massey has since been acquired by rival Alpha Natural Resources, which reached the sweeping agreement with federal officials.

** FILE ** West Virginia State Police direct traffic at the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Montcoal, W.Va., on April 5, 2010. (AP Photo)
** FILE ** West Virginia State Police direct traffic at the entrance ... more >

Alpha has agreed to pay $35 million for all citations against Massey’s former mines, including $10.8 million in violations that MSHA will announce in Tuesday’s investigative report.

The $46.5 million in criminal restitution aims to guarantee that the families of the 29 miners and two co-workers who survived the explosion each receive $1.5 million. Several families already have received this portion of the agreement by settling with Massey in the months following the disaster.

The Virginia-based Alpha also will invest $48 million in a mine, health and safety research trust and another $80 million to improve safety at all of its underground mines with the latest technology and equipment. The upgrades include sufficient workers and gear to coat mines with crushed limestone to dilute the explosive coal dust that accumulates during mining.

These investments also will fund a state-of-the-art training center in southern West Virginia that will host a laboratory capable of testing safety conditions in ways that would be too dangerous to attempt in actual mines.

In addition, Alpha has agreed to audit all of its underground mines, correct any shortcomings found within 90 days and report those results to federal officials. The company similarly must share the findings of its internal investigation into the disaster.

The agreement appears to be among the largest resulting from a U.S. mining disaster. The settlement is sizable by Massey standards. In 2009, Massey and subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties related to a January 2006 fire that killed two miners at the Alma No. 1 mine.

Don Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfield died after getting lost as they tried to flee the sprawling underground Logan County mine. Their widows settled a wrongful-death lawsuit for undisclosed terms in 2008. Four mine supervisors later pleaded guilty to federal misdemeanor charges that they failed to lead crews on required escape drills at various times in 2005 and 2006.

Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne died in the explosion near Montcoal last April, said he wasn’t told about the purpose of the Tuesday-morning teleconference, but he was hoping for criminal indictments.

“Somebody’s got to pay for what’s been done,” he told the Associated Press late Monday.

Mr. Quarles, a miner for nearly 40 years and a former Massey employee, was inside Upper Big Branch and knew that his son faced bad conditions every day he went to work. But in the eight months since the blast, previous MSHA briefings and comprehensive reports by independent investigators and the United Mine Workers of America have revealed “it was worse than what we thought — a lot worse,” he said.

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