CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For decades, Massey Energy symbolized ugly aspects of the coal industry in West Virginia. The out-of-state corporation racked up severe safety and pollution citations -- but often evaded enforcement by appealing and stalling penalties. The firm's flamboyant CEO used his wealth to boost Republican politics through the raw weight of cash, indirectly causing the U.S. Supreme Court to rebuke the Mountain State in one case.
Now the Massey legacy has collapsed in shame. Official federal findings released Tuesday say deliberate safety law violations killed 29 miners in the 2010 explosion at Massey's Performance Coal Co. pit in Raleigh County.
The new owner of Massey's holdings, Alpha Natural Resources, has agreed to a record-breaking $209 million settlement that includes federal fines and reparations to expunge the guilt of the company it purchased.
At the time of the blast, more than 100 previous violation notices and $188,000 in fines were pending against Massey. After the tragedy, Massey leaders attempted to blame the explosion on an act of God, a sudden influx of methane gas. But repeated investigations scuttled that excuse.
Mine supervisors kept two sets of records -- a private one listing safety hazards and a whitewashed second set to show to mine inspectors. Illegally, foremen inside the mine were tipped off when safety inspectors arrived.
After the explosion, autopsies found that nearly three-fourths of the dead miners had black lung from breathing coal dust -- while the U.S. average for underground miners is just 3.2 percent. "That is a terrifying number, an astonishing number," state investigator Davitt McAteer told reporter Ken Ward Jr.
The final federal conclusions released Tuesday reassert what prior studies found: that Massey failed to suppress deadly coal dust, and a small methane explosion triggered a bigger blast in swirling clouds of dust. Massey had failed to perform required mine safety checks or correct known dangers. There were "multiple examples of systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts by Performance Coal Co./Massey to avoid compliance ... and to thwart detection of that noncompliance by federal and state regulators," the report said.
Tuesday's $200 million settlement by the mine's new owner doesn't preclude criminal prosecution of previous Massey executives. Will any occur? Keep reading the daily news to follow developments.