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Alpha to pay $200 million in UBB safety deal

Read updates and more on the Coal Tattoo blog.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alpha Natural Resources will spend $200 million on fines, victim restitution and mine safety improvements to resolve enforcement actions and some criminal matters arising from the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, the Gazette has learned.

Federal prosecutors are set to announce the deal this morning, just hours before the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is to brief families on the agency's long-awaited report on the April 2010 explosion, according to sources who have been briefed on the settlement.

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.

When then-U.S. Attorney Charles Miller in December 2008 settled civil and criminal matters concerning the January 2006 Aracoma Mine fire, the deal included an unusual promise not to prosecute any officers or employees of the Massey parent company.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin confirmed Monday that his office has scheduled a conference call for this morning to announce an "important development" in his criminal investigation to family members and lawyers for family members of the miners who died at Upper Big Branch.

Goodwin declined to provide any specifics of the development.

"I'm not going to discuss that until I have an opportunity to tell the families," Goodwin said.

Later today, MSHA chief Joe Main and agency coal administrator Kevin Stricklin will meet with families in a closed-door session starting at noon at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy outside Beckley.

A press conference to publicly announce the MSHA findings has been scheduled for 3 p.m., also at the agency's training academy.

MSHA officials are expected to announce final findings of their investigation, along with a list of contributory violations and proposed monetary fines.

The April 5, 2010, explosion in Raleigh County was the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

MSHA investigators have already said they believe the explosion occurred through a mechanism generally similar to that outlined by reports issued in May by independent investigator Davitt McAteer and in late October by the United Mine Workers union.

All agree that the explosion involved an ignition of a small amount of methane gas that transitioned into a massive coal-dust explosion because of Massey's poor safety practices. The ignition likely was sparked by worn-out longwall cutting teeth hitting sandstone, and erupted into a huge explosion when it hit large amounts of coal dust Massey had not cleaned up from underground tunnels.

MSHA investigators have also focused on evidence that Massey covered up safety conditions at Upper Big Branch, by keeping hazards out of official record books and warning workers underground of impending inspections.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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