On April 5, 2010, an explosion rocked Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 miners. The mine was 1,000 feet (300 m) underground in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The cause of the explosion was found to be the result of Massey Energy not following proper safety precautions.
The explosion occurred at 3:27 PM local time, at the Upper Big Branch South Mine near the community of Montcoal, about 30 miles (48 km) south of Charleston. The mine is operated by the Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy. High methane levels were detected and subsequently an explosion from an unknown source occurred. Twenty-five men were initially identified as killed. Four days later, the four missing men were found dead for a total of 29 deaths. Investigators later faulted Massey Energy for failure to properly maintain its ventilation systems which allowed methane levels to increase to dangerous amounts.
The Justice Department and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration tried to bring closure Tuesday to two key aspects of last year’s deadly coal mine disaster in West Virginia. The mine safety agency issued its final report on the explosion — a 13-pound document that blamed Massey Energy for putting production far ahead of safety — and the DOJ announced the largest settlement ever in a coal mine disaster.
“A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coal fields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk taking”
– Report from May 19, 2011
Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced to the families of the Upper Big Branch victims that he had reached a $210 million settlement with the owner of the mine.
The settlement extracts from Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey Energy earlier this year, nearly $130 million for mine safety training and major safety equipment improvements. Although the settlement blames Massey for the conditions that led to the deadly explosion, Alpha will pay nearly $35 million in fines for Massey’s safety violations. As much as $1.5 million will go to each of the families as restitution.
In return, no criminal charges will be filed against Alpha. In other words, no one will be held accountable.
“Justice is not if you have enough money to pay off your heinous acts then you may go free,” she said. “And that’s what’s happening here. They have enough money, they have the wherewithal, and mind you, it’s done on the backs of people whose lives were lost, but they have enough money to pay away their sins.”
– Judy Jones Petersen, a Charleston physician whose brother Dean died in the disaster