The explosion that tore through the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia last year, killing 29 miners and injuring two, was the largest U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. This week, the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration blamed the corporate culture of its former owners.
The federal agency made a point about the need to observe safety rules in language everyone in the industry understands: money. The $10.8 million penalty for the mine explosion was the largest single fine the agency has levied, five times bigger than any previous penalty.
At the time of the disaster, the Upper Big Branch mine was operated by a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co. In a settlement worked out with federal authorities, the families of the victims will be paid $46.5 million, about $1.5 million per family. That isn't much, weighed against the human loss.
The $209 million settlement includes other penalties and funds for safety measures at all mines owned by Alpha Natural Resources Inc., which after the disaster bought out Massey, including the Upper Big Branch mine and its liabilities.
Miners will be safer in the future, and the families of the victims will receive some compensation for the tragic past. That's a step in the right direction. But this settlement still is unsatisfying.
Because of the corporate shifting, no company named Massey was a party to the agreement worked out with the U.S. Department of Justice. The civil penalty may get the attention of industry management as a whole, but will it really chasten those who led Massey, the company that is synonymous with blame here?
The mine safety issued Massey and its subsidiary 369 citations and orders, which covered an unprecedented 21 flagrant violations. Twelve citations and orders were directly related to the cause of the accident.
This was an operation that kept two sets of books, according to the findings, to fool inspectors. It created "a culture of fear and intimidation" among miners to hide its reckless practices.
It valued "production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law." The result was that 29 men died in the massive coal dust explosion triggered by a methane ignition.
"Until someone goes to jail for what happened at this mine, justice will not have been done," said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America International. He's right.
The companies involved can't be prosecuted under the agreement, but nothing precludes criminal charges against individuals. Two low-level employees at Upper Big Branch were charged earlier.
Let prosecutors proceed to the top of Massey, where the arrogance was greatest and the buck has not yet stopped.
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