MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - The new owner of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 men died in an explosion two years ago on Thursday announced it will soon begin work to permanently seal the underground mine with concrete and finish the job by summer.
Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired the mine when it bought Massey Energy last summer, said late Wednesday it will seal the portals - large tunnels miners use to get underground - at the Upper Big Branch mine. Boreholes will be plugged and shafts that house the huge industrial fans meant to sweep bad air out of the mine will be capped to prevent any access.
"Everyone still has vivid memories of the tragedy and the suffering the miners' families endured," Chief Executive Officer Kevin Crutchfield said Wednesday. "For all of us in the mining industry, it is a solemn reminder of why we must always put safety first in everything we do."
Meanwhile, the mother and siblings of one of those killed on Wednesday sued former Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship and eight others they hold responsible in their lawsuit for the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades.
An explosion fueled by methane and coal dust ripped through the seven miles of underground corridors at the former Massey Energy mine on April 5, 2010. Starting at 3:01 p.m. on Thursday, West Virginians led by their governor are planning to observe a moment of silence to mark the second anniversary of the deadly blast.
Pittsburgh attorney Bruce Stanley filed the suit against the former Massey executives and mine managers in Raleigh County Circuit Court for the family of fallen miner Edward Dean Jones, just before the two-year statute of limitations expired. The complaint alleges deliberate infliction of emotional distress and demands compensatory and punitive damages.
Blankenship, who has retired and virtually dropped from public view, did not immediately respond to efforts to get his comment on the suit. His codefendants have moved on to other jobs.
The lawsuit does not target Massey or Alpha. Rather, it goes after individuals the Jones family says should have put their workers' lives ahead of profits. Those named include Massey's former general counsel Shane Harvey and former vice president for safety Elizabeth Chamberlin, both of whom reported directly to Blankenship.
Harvey declined comment and Chamberlin could not immediately be reached late Wednesday.
Chamberlin was among Massey employees who have invoked their right to avoid self-incrimination and have refused to testify in four investigations.
"Our hope is that they will be criminally prosecuted for their unconscionable deeds," said Jones' sister, Judy Jones Peterson, "but I also believe they should be held accountable individually to each and every family member that they irreparably damaged on that fateful day when our loved one was taken from us."
"We will never be able to come to terms with this loss knowing it was completely preventable," she said in a statement. "We want them to be held responsible. We need to make sure that a message is sent to this industry that we will not tolerate such flagrant acts."
So far, only two Massey employees have faced criminal charges.
Former superintendent Gary May, a codefendant in Wednesday's lawsuit, is the highest-ranking one charged so far. He has pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal government and is cooperating with prosecutors while awaiting sentencing in August.