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W.Va. Mine Settlement Expected


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Let's talk, now, about the reported settlement in last year's deadly coal mine disaster in West Virginia. Details are expected later this morning, but NPR and other news organizations have confirmed some elements of a $200 million settlement that involves civil and criminal penalties levied against the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine.

You will recall that 29 workers were killed in an underground explosion there in April of 2010. NPR's Howard Berkes has been covering this story from very early on. He's in Beckley, West Virginia this morning.

Howard, good morning.


INSKEEP: So what are the details, as far as you know, of this settlement?

BERKES: Well, what we know for certain is that there is this global settlement and that it's intent is to encompass civil and criminal penalties for serious mine safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine. That's what multiple sources familiar with elements of the arrangement have told me.

The $200 million figure comes from veteran coal industry reporter Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette, who is quoting un-named sources. And included in that figure is $28 million in civil penalties that are completely unrelated to the Upper Big Branch explosion, but also involving Alpha Natural Resources. That's the company that absorbed Upper Big Branch owner Massey Energy earlier this year. That's what Mine Safety and Health News, an industry publication, is reporting.

INSKEEP: You say global settlement. That means basically settling all outstanding claims at once?

BERKES: Settling all outstanding claims and claims yet to come. There are claims we don't actually know about yet until the Mine Safety and Health Administration actually issues its final report on the disaster later today. The idea is to settle for Alpha Natural Resources, the company that bought Massey Energy, any claims that the government would make and have made against the company and against Massey Energy for mine safety violations that have occurred to date, both at Upper Big Branch and at other mines.

INSKEEP: Now, we should stress that neither the mine owner nor the government have commented publicly on all of this. But how have the victims' families responded to the news?

BERKES: Well, you know, they were expecting that today would be devoted to the final report from the Mine Safety and Health Administration on the disaster. So they were quite surprised that the former Massey Energy officials who bear some responsibility will somehow escape, you know, more serious punishment because of this settlement.

Mark Moreland, an attorney for two of the families involved, responded somewhat cynically. He said, it's pretty easy to buy peace in this state. And Judy Jones Petersen, who lost her brother Dean at Upper Big Branch, is outright angry. It's so wrong, she told me. It's so absolutely wrong on the very deepest level of what is moral and right, she said.

Again, though, the details have yet to come, although it is clear that the settlement includes cash payments to the families.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about what the reason would be that maybe families would be upset. We are hearing about cash payments here, as you said, but what about criminal prosecution of individuals? Is that part of the package?

BERKES: Well, the Charleston Gazette reports - and some of my sources also suggest - that the settlement involves limited criminal liability for Alpha itself as a corporation, but still leaves open the possibility of criminal charges against individual corporate officers and managers from Massey Energy.

And it's really hard to imagine anything else happening, because the Justice Department and the mine safety agency were severely criticized for a similar settlement, also involving Massey Energy, and a deadly mine disaster in 2006, because that deal included no criminal charges for executives and for high level managers of the company.

So doing that again here, you know, where we have the loss of 29 sons, fathers, grandfathers, brothers and husbands, that would really trigger outrage.

Remember, too, that several investigations have already concluded that Massey Energy persistently and repeatedly ignored fundamental safety practices at Upper Big Branch. And that, investigators have said, caused a small and normally benign methane gas ignition to erupt into that massive explosion that was fed by excessive coal dust.

I'm told that the mine safety agency concludes, in its final report today, that Massey Energy engaged in a pattern and practice of putting production before safety.

INSKEEP: NPR's Howard Berkes in Beckley, West Virginia.

BERKES: Howard, thanks very much.

You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.