MSHA fire prevention course would settle Aracoma mine lawsuit
Federal safety regulators have agreed to create a mine fire prevention training course as part of a proposal to settle a lawsuit brought against the government over lax enforcement at a Massey Energy operation where two miners died in a January 2006 fire, records show.
The government would pay the families of the two miners a total of $1 million, and regulators would have to provide the families with previously secret testimony about regulatory failures that played a role in the fire at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.
On Friday, lawyers for Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield and for the U.S. Department of Justice filed their proposed settlement in federal court in Charleston. They asked U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver to approve the deal. Four years ago, Bragg and Hatfield filed suit under the Federal Tort Claims Act over the deaths of their husbands, Don Bragg and Ellery “Elvis” Hatfield. They cited lax inspections and enforcement by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, and alleged conflicts of interest among agency staff who were charged with policing the Aracoma operation. The case has bounced between U.S. District Court in Charleston, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., and the West Virginia Supreme Court.
“Ms. Bragg and Ms. Hatfield have kept the promise they made to themselves and to each other to do all in their power to hold accountable those responsible for the deaths of Don and Elvis and to make sure that others do not suffer a similar fate,” said Bruce Stanley, a lawyer for the families. “I certainly don’t know what more they could have done.”
Stanley said the widows “shouted the warning about Massey” well before the deaths of 29 miners in an April 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
“Unfortunately, those in the best position to act on that warning chose not to,” Stanley said. “Hopefully, the MSHA’s planned course on fire prevention in underground mines will help to assure that there is never, ever another Aracoma. Hopefully, the government’s ongoing criminal investigation will help to assure that there will never, ever be another Upper Big Branch, either.
“These two widows have done their utmost to make it so. Armed with that knowledge, hopefully they will live long and with the peace of mind that they so richly deserve.”
The Aracoma case stems from the Jan. 19, 2006, fire in which workers trying to evacuate the underground tunnels ran into thick black smoke in their primary escapeway, and were forced to find another way out. Two workers, Bragg and Hatfield, became separated from the rest of the crew, got lost, and eventually succumbed to the smoke.
While MSHA cited a variety of serious violations that led to the deaths — and Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. pleaded guilty to criminal violations — an agency “internal review” report also documented major lapses by MSHA officials.
Among other things, the internal review concluded that MSHA officials did not identify serious violations or require that they be fixed. The review also raised questions about “conflicts of interest” among MSHA officials charged with enforcing safety requirements at Massey operations.
Under the proposed settlement, the government would pay $500,000 each to the Bragg and Hatfield estates.
The deal requires MSHA to develop a course on fire prevention in underground mines at the National Mine Safety and Health Academy outside Beckley. On the first day of the class, the Bragg and Hatfield families will be invited as honored guests, according to a copy of the settlement. In opening remarks by the MSHA chief, the victims of the Aracoma fire will be remembered “and mentioned as examples of the lives that can possibly be saved through proper fire prevention and fire escape techniques and the reason this course is being offered,” according to the settlement.
“The course will highlight innovative techniques, as well as existing safe practices to enhance fire prevention and fire escape and response,” the settlement says.
Also, MSHA will dedicate a plaque in honor of Bragg and Hatfield at the firefighting training pad at the mine safety academy, the settlement says.
The settlement document also indicates that MSHA will provide the families with copies of the complete transcripts of interviews given by two top MSHA officials — former MSHA chief Richard Stickler and current MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin — about the events that occurred at Aracoma.
Both interviews occurred during an independent review of MSHA’s actions at the August 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster, but they include questions and answers about the Aracoma fire. Transcripts of the interviews were made public by MSHA, but large sections of the testimony about Aracoma were blacked out, or redacted, by the agency.
For example, Stickler was asked if any MSHA personnel were “reprimanded, or punished, or terminated” for their actions at the Aracoma Mine. Stickler’s answer was not made public. Stricklin indicates in his testimony that inspectors from Aracoma were “pulled out of there” and that two people resigned, but their names were not made public.
It’s not clear if the complete testimony being provided to the families will be made public. The settlement says the transcripts will be provided to the families “subject to the protective order” in the families’ lawsuit against the government.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.