A Massey Energy subsidiary has agreed to pay $4.2 million in civil and criminal penalties and plead guilty to federal charges stemming from a fire that killed two miners at a southern West Virginia coal mine in January 2006. An investigation by U.S. Attorney Charles Miller is still in progress and he hasn’t ruled out the possibility that individuals might be charged with violating federal mine safety laws. Miller says he hopes this “sends a message to the coal industry.” Mine Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere says the $1.7 million civil penalty was the agency’s highest ever against a coal company. The $2.5 million criminal penalty was the second-highest.
According to state and federal investigators, an overheated conveyer belt caused the 2006 fire at Aracoma Coal Co.’s Alma No. 1 mine. Two miners – 33-year-old Don Bragg and 47-year-old Ellery Elvis Hatfield – died after they were separated from the rest of their mining crew. Weeks earlier, a mine explosion killed 12 miners at Sago Mine in northern West Virginia, owned by International Coal Group. Both incidents led to sweeping federal and state mine safety law revisions.
In November of last year, Richmond, Virginia-based Massey Energy agreed to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the families. The terms of that settlement were not disclosed. The lawsuit claimed the Defendants knew or should have known that a series of problems at the mine, including a missing air control wall, could kill miners by allowing smoke to fill escape routes. U.S. Attorney Miller noted that the federal investigation confirmed that air control walls were removed and that Bragg and Hatfield weren’t properly trained in how to escape. Aracoma was charged in a 10-count information, which means the company agreed to plead guilty rather than having the case sent to a grand jury.
The information accuses the company of violating federal safety requirements by failing to provide a primary escapeway for the miners, failure to properly withdraw the miners, failure to train the mine dispatcher on how to monitor the mine’s air ventilating system, failure to conduct timely escape drills and providing a false record on when drills were conducted. A federal district judge will decide whether to accept Aracoma’s plea. Aracoma President John Jones said the company has worked to improve safety at the mine. Bruce Stanley, the lawyer who represented the families, said he hoped the “penalties will help convince all operators that money will never be more important than miners’ lives.”
Source: Associated Press
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