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Families of the Victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster Finally Receive Compensation

According to both the Charleston Gazette and USA Today, on Tuesday January 10, 2012, Alpha Natural Resources finally finalized a deal that resolved the last of the wrongful death workers compensation claims and wrongful death lawsuits of the families of the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. This deal comes almost 2 years after the tragedy of the April 2010 explosion. Although Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources had not confirmed the agreement or otherwise comment at the time of the news reports, attorney Mark Moreland said the final deals were cut Tuesday afternoon after a marathon mediation session which endured for more than 4 days. Although some of the lawsuits resulting from the 2010 tragedy had long since been settled, mediation of the final 13 began last week and continued through Tuesday the 10th.

Just weeks after the April 5, 2010 explosion, which has been labeled the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades, Massey Energy, the company who owned the mine at the time of the explosion, offered $3 million to each victim’s family. Some accepted, but most refused; saying the lives of their loved ones had no price tags. Alpha inherited the mine and the lawsuits when it bought Massey Energy last summer. It has since settled several unrelated lawsuits against other Massey operations. According to an Alpha company spokesman said last month that Alpha was eager to shed the legacy problems and move forward.

According to the Charleston Gazette, Charleston lawyer Tim Bailey, who represented two miners’ families and helped lead a group of lawyers with the bulk of the cases stated: “On behalf of the families we were privileged to represent, we’re happy we could provide some measure of closure on this particular part of this tragedy.” Despite the financial compensation that the families will be receiving as a result of these settlements, Bailey and the other lawyers for the Upper Big Branch families emphasized that what their clients really want is for the top Massey managers responsible for safety conditions at the mine to be prosecuted. According to Bailey, “Compensation is one thing, but justice is another. Based on what happened at this mine, there is not going to be justice until some people are indicted and some people go to jail.”

According to reports by USA Today the families may indeed get exactly the justice that they desire. In December, Alpha reached a $210 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice that spares the corporation criminal prosecution. Individuals, however, can still be prosecuted, which is exactly what many families have publicly demanded. So far, one person has been held accountable in criminal court: Former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover was convicted in November of lying to investigators and trying to destroy mine records. He is awaiting sentencing. The DOJ settlement included $46.5 million in restitution to the victims’ families, guaranteeing them and two survivors of the blast $1.5 million apiece. That $1.5 million will be deducted from the wrongful death settlements.

Based on investigations conducted by several independent organizations, there is no question that Massey, and now Alpha, was indeed responsible for the tragic explosion. Separate investigations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the United Mine Workers of America and an independent panel appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin have all agreed on what caused the blast. They determined that Massey allowed highly explosive methane gas and coal dust to accumulate at Upper Big Branch, and that worn and broken cutting equipment created the spark that ignited the fuel. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed a mere flare-up to turn into an inferno that ripped through miles of underground tunnels and killed men instantly.

Although Alpha was not directly responsible for the injuries that these mine workers and their families suffered, Alpha did acquire liability by virtue of acquiring Massey. With that being said, it is fortunate that Alpha sought to settle with these families, instead of putting them through the added stress of enduring a trial or an administrative hearing.