But under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, criminal violations of established safety standards - violating a roof control plan or not reporting an accident, for example - are misdemeanors. The law does contain some felony provisions, for lying on required safety reports to MSHA. For individuals, the misdemeanors carry maximum jail time of one year. Felony convictions carry up to five years in prison.
Longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, said the law needs to change.
"The day should be changing in this country where we have the attitude that killing coal miners is a misdemeanor," McAteer said Friday evening.
He praised the efforts of Goodwin and his team of prosecutors, who have begun to use laws against misleading federal investigators and conspiring to evade government regulations in their ongoing probe of the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
"The Mine Act has limitations and unless those limitations are changed, it really depends on the creativity of the U.S. Attorney to find other ways to address mine disasters," McAteer said.
So far, in two felony convictions, Goodwin's office has secured jail time for a former Upper Big Branch miner who admitted he lied about having a foreman's license and the mine's security director, who was convicted of lying to investigators and trying to destroy evidence.
Goodwin also recently landed a plea agreement with one of Upper Big Branch's mine superintendents, who was charged with the felony of conspiring to evade mine safety standards and cover up the resulting hazards.
Also, Goodwin's office worked out a $209 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey in June 2011, agreeing not to bring criminal charges against the company, but reserving his office's ability to prosecute individual mine managers and corporate executives.
"The Mine Act provisions make it a challenge to prosecute mine safety crimes," Goodwin said in an interview Friday. "At Upper Big Branch, it was clear from the beginning that we needed to look beyond the Mine Act."
California Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, had urged federal prosecutors to bring conspiracy charges against Crandall Canyon officials in a formal June 2008 referral letter.
In the House, Miller is sponsoring legislation to make criminal violation of mine safety standards a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $1 million fine. His legislation, the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, also broadens the ability of prosecutors to bring charges against corporate officials who affect -- directly or indirectly -- safety conditions in a mine.
"Many expected more from this four-year investigation, including me, and with the U.S. Attorney's findings, we must move forward with legislative changes" Miller said. "The health and safety of America's miners must not be held up by predictable partisan battles. Miners and their families shouldn't have to wait for another tragedy to occur. It's well past time we get back to work."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.