CHARLESTON, W.Va. --House Democrats on Friday urged the Justice Department to bring more criminal charges against mine managers who ran the Upper Big Branch Mine where 29 workers died in an April 2010 explosion.
Ranking House and Education Committee member George Miller, D-Calif., along with 15 other Democratic committee members, called on Attorney General Eric Holder to "vigorously pursue the investigation and prosecution of all the individuals responsible" for the mine disaster.
Specifically citing former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, the Democrats said in a letter, "This tragedy was completely preventable had the managers and senior executive responsible for this mine complied with the requirements of the Mine Act and its regulations."
"While we acknowledge that the criminal provisions of the Mine Act are limited and Congress needs to enact reforms to strengthen them, it is imperative that the Justice Department make use of all available legal authorities at its disposal to deter a model of business operations that puts profits ahead of mines' safety," said the letter, which was copied to Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.
Last week, Goodwin reached a $209.5 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, agreeing not to prosecute the company for any Upper Big Branch criminal liabilities acquired as part of the June purchase of Massey Energy.
The deal included no admission of guilt, but requires Alpha to spend $80 million over the next two years on mine safety improvements and create a $48 million mine safety research trust fund.
Alpha also agreed to pay $46.5 million in restitution to families of the disaster victims and $35 million to resolve pending Massey safety fines, including $10.8 million levied for violations related to the Upper Big Branch explosion.
But Goodwin did not also agree to never bring charges against individual Massey employees, executives and agents, as then-U.S. Attorney Charles Miller did following the deaths of two miners in a January 2006 fire at Massey's Aracoma Mine in Logan County.
So far, Goodwin's office has chalked up two convictions in its sprawling investigation of Upper Big Branch and of Massey's safety practices.
A former Upper Big Branch miner, Thomas Harrah, was sentenced to 10 months in jail after he pleaded guilty to faking a foreman's license while performing mine safety examinations at the mine.
Longtime mine security chief Hughie Elbert Stover is awaiting sentencing after being convinced of lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence regarding a Massey policy to warn underground workings of impending government inspections. In its report on the disaster, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said that Massey policy allowed the company to conceal some serious safety problems at Upper Big Branch, and contributed to the disaster.
In announcing his settlement, Goodwin told reporters that his prosecution team has found evidence of other mine safety crimes for which charges have not yet been brought.
"I have made it clear that our investigation continues," Goodwin said Friday. "The resolution with the company is certainly significant and unprecedented, and allows us to focus our efforts on holding accountable any individuals determined to have culpability."
In their letter to Holder, Miller and the other Democrats said they viewed Goodwin's settlement with Alpha as "the beginning of the Department's efforts to go up Massey's chain of command as far as possible, consistent with the evidence, and hold those individuals accountable for the needless deaths of those 29 coal miners."
The letter said the MSHA investigation report on Upper Big Branch found "stunningly brazen misconduct and violations of federal law," ranging from intimidation of miners with safety concerns to keeping two sets of mine records to avoid revealing safety hazards to government inspectors.
"Individuals, alone or in concert, established these deadly practices and procedures," the letter said. "Though these individuals stood at the head of this disaster, they have thus far escaped justice."
The letter noted that Blankenship and more than a dozen other Massey executives were entitled to an estimated $196 million in payouts from the Alpha transaction. "This payout dwarfs the $46.5 million in civil restitution provided for survivors under the non-prosecution agreement," the letter said.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., issued a press release to announce his agreement with Miller's letter. Rahall is not a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee.
"This was the worst coal mining disaster in our country in more than forty years," Rahall said. "It is a huge tragedy, but it will be made even more tragic if individuals who knowingly enabled the UBB mine to devolve into a death trap are allowed to walk away from their misdeeds without punishment."
Also Friday, on the last day of the congressional session for the year, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., introduced her own mine safety bill, saying she hopes the legislation "will ignite a fruitful debate on how we can improve the effectiveness of mine safety laws, as well as create tougher penalties for those who don't play by the rules."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.