BEAVER -- Federal regulators on Tuesday blamed the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster on "a workplace culture that valued production over safety," and prosecutors said a record $200 million settlement could set the stage for broad industry reforms.
Outlining flagrant safety violations and a practice of trying to cover up major hazards, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials cited mine operator Performance Coal Co. with 369 violations -- including 12 that directly contributed to the disaster -- and levied more than $10.8 million in fines
Both the fines and the settlement are by far the largest ever in a case over worker safety in the mining industry.
"We think this is historic," said U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, whose office announced the settlement just hours before MSHA was set to issue its long-awaited Upper Big Branch investigation report.
In that massive, 5-inch-thick report, MSHA concluded that the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners was "entirely preventable" and could have been avoided if Performance and its then-parent company, Massey Energy, had followed long-standing and well-known safety standards.
"Every time Massey sent miners into the UBB Mine, Massey put those miners' lives at risk," said Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health and chief of MSHA.
After a 20-month probe, MSHA's investigation team found that the disaster was caused in part by the company's "unwarrantable failure" to follow federal rules governing mine ventilation, roof control, and the cleanup of highly explosive coal dust.
Other contributory citations alleged a "reckless disregard" for requirements to perform periodic safety examinations and fix the problems identified, a systematic effort to warn underground workers of impending inspections and intimidate miners so they wouldn't complain about hazardous conditions.
"Massey routinely ignored obvious safety hazards and let conditions develop that allowed a small methane ignition to propagate into a massive coal dust explosion," the MSHA report said. "The tragic deaths of 29 miners and serious injuries to two others at Upper Big Branch were entirely preventable."
MSHA categorized 12 of Massey's contributing violations as deserving "flagrant" penalties of up to $220,000 each. Four of those related to failing to properly conduct required pre-shift, on-shift and weekly safety examinations of the sprawling Raleigh County mine. MSHA said company representatives did not examine all areas of the mine, ignored clear hazards, did not take steps to fix problems, and in many cases did not use methane detectors needed to pick up explosive levels of gas.
MSHA also issued 357 violations to Massey that were not categorized as having contributed to the disaster. Eleven of those violations were cited as deserving flagrant penalties.
MSHA also cited a Massey contractor, David Stanley Consulting LLC, with two contributory violations. The contractor provided employees who performed safety examinations at Upper Big Branch, and MSHA alleged those examinations were not properly conducted.
In the deal worked out by Goodwin, Alpha Natural Resources -- which bought Massey in June -- has agreed to pay $10.8 million to resolve civil penalties related to Upper Big Branch, as part of paying off $35 million in fines pending from former Massey operations. The fines are part of a larger, $209.5 million settlement Goodwin announced hours before the release of the MSHA report.
MSHA officials said the previous largest penalty in any mining case was $2.3 million for Magma Copper, related to a March 1993 machinery accident that killed four workers at a copper operation in Arizona.