Alpha to Pay $200 Million to Settle Upper Big Branch Claims

by Erica Peterson on December 6, 2011

Alpha Natural Resources will pay more than $200 million to settle civil and criminal claims stemming from the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. At the time, the mine was owned by Massey Energy, but Alpha bought Massey last June.

The settlement will compensate victims’ families, improve underground safety and pay Upper Big Branch’s unpaid fines. As the Charleston Gazette reports, it will also release Alpha–but not Massey–from criminal liability.

The groundbreaking, “global settlement,” covers civil penalties and some limited criminal liability assumed by Alpha when it bought Massey Energy in June, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal hadn’t been officially announced.

Under the settlement, civil penalties for the Upper Big Branch Mine operators, Performance Coal Co., would be resolved. So would potential criminal liability for the company.

But unlike a previous government deal with Massey, the deal does not resolve any potential criminal violations by any officers or agents of Performance Coal or Massey, sources said.

In 2009, Massey officials won an unusual settlement with the widows of two men killed in a fire at West Virginia’s Aracoma Mine. The deal included immunity from criminal prosecution for top Massey employees.

As NPR’s Howard Berkes reports, some of the Upper Big Branch victims aren’t happy with the settlement.

“It’s so wrong,” says Judy Jones Petersen, a Charleston physician whose brother¬†Dean Jones¬†died in the explosion. Petersen is upset by what she sees as a release of some criminal liability for the deaths of 29 men in exchange for a $200 million payment. “It’s so absolutely wrong on the very deepest level of what is moral and right.”

Attorneys Rachel and Mark Moreland, who represent two families of Upper Big Branch victims, also reacted with anger.

“$200 million for the lives of 29 men certainly doesn’t bring justice to the families of those dead miners,” says Mark Moreland.

Moreland and attorneys for other families are engaged in mediation talks aimed at settling lawsuits against Alpha. Moreland says those talks and lawsuits will not be affected by the civil and criminal settlement with the Justice Department.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration plans to close its investigation into the explosion and release its report this afternoon.

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