CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As West Virginians marked the third anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster Friday, some political leaders renewed their calls for tougher mine-safety legislation.
"It is not enough merely to think back, to mourn, and to wish," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, a Democrat whose district includes the disaster site. "That does not do justice to those we lost. We must act."
Rahall is among the co-sponsors of the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act of 2013, the latest effort by congressional Democrats to give the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration more tools to protect the nation's coal miners.
Among other things, the legislation would give MSHA expanded authority to go after renegade mine operators, increase penalties for criminal safety violations and help protect miners who complain about unsafe working conditions.
"We heard repeatedly in the weeks, months and years after the disaster that action would be taken in Congress after all the facts about what caused it were in," said United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts. "That proved to be false. Miners and their families need more than lip service from congressional leadership; they need action."
On April 5, 2010, a huge explosion ripped through the Raleigh County mine. Twenty-nine workers died, making it the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
Four investigations blamed the Upper Big Branch deaths on a pattern by Massey Energy Co. of violating federal standards concerning mine ventilation and the control of highly explosive coal dust, both of which set the stage for a small methane ignition to turn into a huge, coal dust-fueled explosion.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin reached a deal to not prosecute Alpha Natural Resources for any Upper Big Branch criminal liabilities that it inherited when it purchased Massey Energy in June 2011.
That deal required the firm to spend $80 million during 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.
Goodwin's deal allowed federal officials to pursue potential criminal cases against any individuals -- including Massey executives -- for violations related to the mine disaster.
So far, one former Upper Big Branch miner, a former mine superintendent and a mine security chief have gone to prison. An official from another Massey mine is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in a deal to cooperate with prosecutors.
During a plea hearing in February, that other Massey official, David C. Hughart, alleged that longtime corporate CEO Don Blankenship was part of a decade-long conspiracy to hide safety violations from federal inspectors. Through his lawyer, Blankenship has said he did nothing wrong.
Following the disaster, independent investigators also said state and federal regulators didn't do enough to prevent the deaths, and safety advocates said tougher laws and rules were needed.