W. Va. mine owner settles with explosion victims' families

The Upper Big Branch Mine is shown on April 6, 2010, in Montcoal, West Virginia, five days after a blast that killed 29 men.

Story highlights

  • 29 miners died in the April 2010 blast at the Upper Big Branch coal mine
  • The settlements must be approved by the courts, an attorney says
  • None of the miners' families want to speak publicly, he says
Owners of West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine have settled wrongful death lawsuits filed by the families of 29 men who died in an April 2010 explosion, an attorney representing two of the miners' estates said Wednesday.
The final deals were reached Tuesday after a marathon mediation session, attorney Mark Moreland said. Seven cases were settled Sunday and 22 more were settled Tuesday, he said. The settlement must still be approved by the courts, which could take several weeks, he added.
While none of the miners' families were willing to speak publicly Wednesday, Moreland said his clients, the families of miners Ronald Lee Maynor and William Griffith, are "satisfied" with the settlements.
"The civil lawsuits presented opportunities to further justice on behalf of the victims of Upper Big Branch," Moreland's firm said in a statement. "... While monetary settlement can never fully compensate the families for the trauma and the loss of their husbands, fathers, grandfathers, brothers and sons it can be a valuable resource to help rebuild their lives."
Previously, Ted Pile, spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, the new owner of the mine, said discussions were underway aimed at a settlement with surviving family members.
The April 5, 2010, explosion was the worst mining disaster in the United States since 1972, when 91 miners died in a fire at the Sunshine Mine in Kellogg, Idaho.
Most of the Upper Big Branch mine victims were working in an area where long-wall cutting was taking place. The technique uses a large grinder to extract coal and creates large amounts of coal dust and methane gas, both of which are explosive.
Last month, the Justice Department announced a record $209 million settlement with Alpha, which bought Massey Energy, the original mine owner, last year. The settlement allows Alpha to avoid prosecution in the disaster, but leaves open the prospect of criminal charges against individual Massey employees, according to the Justice Department.
Under that deal, Alpha will pay $1.5 million to each family that lost relatives in the explosion, spend tens of millions to boost safety in its mines and millions more in penalties.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said in a December report that the blast was caused by a methane ignition that set off a massive coal-dust explosion. But the MSHA said the "unlawful policies and practices" of Massey Energy and its subsidiary, Performance Coal Company, laid the foundation for the disaster.
"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 report said.
The MSHA found Massey Energy kept two sets of books to mislead federal inspectors and its own workers about mine hazards and had twice as many accidents as it reported to regulators, according to the report. The company also failed to conduct adequate inspections, intimidated workers to prevent them from reporting violations and tipped off crews to surprise inspections, the report said.
The company also allowed coal dust and loose coal to build up in the Upper Big Branch mine before the blast, MSHA said.