$209 Million Settlement Reached for Surviving Families of Upper Big Branch Disaster

Money is of little comfort to the families of the victims of the Upper Big Branch Mine collapse that occurred in April 2010. Just over a week ago, federal prosecutors announced a $209 million settlement with the new owners of the coal mine. It is the largest workplace injury settlement that has ever been received for a coal mining disaster in the U.S.

Despite the announcement that each victim’s family will receive $500,000, the families feel like justice has not been served. Immediately following the mine disaster – the worst in four decades – Massey Energy, then-owner of Upper Big Branch Mine, was cited with 370 safety violations related to the explosion. Reports found that the explosion was entirely preventable, and the company was found to have maintained false inspection records in order to conceal serious safety violations. Massey was accused of putting profits before safety.

In the year following the accident, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) had shut down Upper Big Branch 48 times for violations. But the MSHA did not have the power to permanently close the mine.

The deal reached with federal regulators clears the safety violations and basically leaves no responsibility to Massey. In fact, Massey is not even the one paying the settlement money: Upper Big Branch’s new owner, Alpha Natural Resources, is.

Upon hearing of the settlement – and that no criminal charges have been brought against Massey – several grieving families expressed outrage. The brother of one of the workers killed said, “It was an act of murder. They murdered 29 men, and I’m not satisfied one bit.”

The corporation cannot be held criminally liable under the settlement agreement, but there is still potential for former Massey employees to be held personally responsible. A U.S. attorney said that prosecutors are still investigating, and so far one former employee has been convicted of lying to investigators and trying to destroy records. The former security chief is awaiting criminal sentencing.

As the investigation continues it is possible that other criminal charges will be brought. In the meantime, families are left to find solace in the monetary compensation provided under the wrongful death settlement.

Source: Houston Chronicle, “Families demand prosecutions in W.Va. mine blast,” 12/7/11.