CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 20 years ago, the old U.S. Bureau of Mines began promoting a new optical meter that could tell immediately if coal operators had not spread enough crushed limestone through underground tunnels to prevent a disastrous coal-dust explosion.
The coal industry has never deployed these devices, and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has never tried to require them.
But within two years, Alpha Natural Resources officials will have installed these "coal dust explosibility meters" at every single one of their 104 underground mines across the nation's coalfields.
Alpha, the nation's third-largest coal producer, will also add state-of-the-art ventilation monitors to measure fresh-air velocity, direction and methane content to all of its underground mines.
All these moves are part of $80 million in safety improvements Alpha has agreed to make in a $209.5 million Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster settlement to resolve potential corporate criminal charges Alpha inherited when it bought Massey Energy six months ago.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin crafted the deal in an effort to push Alpha -- and the rest of the coal industry -- toward reforms aimed at avoiding a repeat of the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation.
The key, according to Goodwin and his team, is the $80 million in safety improvements are specifically designed to address root causes of the Upper Big Branch explosion, such as poor ventilation practices and most specifically doing a better job cleaning up highly explosive coal dust that can turn a minor methane ignition into a horrific blast like the one at UBB.
"This started out by looking at what we could require them to do to do these things better," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby, a lead prosecutor in Goodwin's ongoing criminal probe of Upper Big Branch and the key architect of the Alpha settlement.
Goodwin announced the move last Tuesday morning, upstaging the release several hours later of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration's report of its investigation into the causes of Upper Big Branch.
Under the settlement, Bristol, Va.-based Alpha must perform a study to determine if its mines have adequate staffing to clean up accumulations of explosive coal dust, accelerate research on new ways to control dust accumulations, and install new emergency oxygen equipment for miners. Alpha will build a state-of-the art training center at its regional office in Julian and set up an aggressive new schedule of worker and supervisor training programs.
The deal also includes $46.5 million in restitution to miners' families and a provision for Alpha to pay $35 million in pending safety fines from former Massey operations, including $10.8 million for new violations related to the explosion investigation.
"There should never be another UBB," Goodwin said. "For far too long, we've accepted the idea that catastrophic accidents are an inherent risk of being a coal miner. It's long past time we put that myth to rest. We believe that this agreement does that."
Families of the miners who died at Upper Big Branch, though, have not welcomed the settlement. They want more criminal prosecutions, to put top Massey officials -- especially former CEO Don Blankenship -- in jail.
So far, Goodwin's sprawling, 20-month probe has brought charges and secured convictions of two individuals at Upper Big Branch: a former Massey miner who admitted that for two years he faked his credentials to perform required mine safety examinations and the mine's long-time security director, who was convicted of lying about the company's policy of warning underground workers of impending government inspections.
As details of last week's settlement emerged, some of the biggest critics of Massey and of Blankenship welcomed language in Goodwin's deal that, unlike a promise not to prosecute reached after the 2006 Aracoma Mine fire, allows future criminal charges against any individual officers, executive or employees found to have committed crimes at Upper Big Branch.
"Sadly, aggressive prosecution against upper management in the Aracoma case might have spared us the horror of UBB," said Bruce Stanley, a lawyer for the families of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, who died at Aracoma. "We'll never know, of course. But we certainly hope that the lesson of making deals with the devil has been learned, that the criminal investigation makes its way into the boardroom as well as the guard shack, and that Alpha chooses a different path than its predecessor."
In its report last week, the MSHA investigation team outlined what it called "reckless disregard" and "unwarrantable failure" by Massey to comply with some of the most basic mine safety requirements for proper ventilation, control of explosive coal dust, and failure to find and correct hazards before miners go to work. MSHA also outlined what it said were concerted efforts by Massey to cover up those violations, by warning workers prior to inspections, lying on safety reports the government reviews, and making workers so afraid for their jobs they won't report safety concerns to the company or regulators.
Many of the civil citations MSHA issued to Massey and its Performance Coal Co. subsidiary might have easily drawn criminal charges. But Goodwin's office worked out a "non-prosecution agreement" with the corporate entities, rather than bringing charges or trying to force Alpha to enter into a formal plea agreement.
David Uhlmann, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at the University of Michigan Law School, said Goodwin was too quick to give Alpha a deal that included no corporate criminal charges.