Life is not cheap in the coal fields of West Virginia after all.
The owner of Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia where 29 miners died last year in a violent explosion, is ready to pay $209.5 million to settle civil and criminal claims related to the blast. Alpha Natural Resources, which earlier this year acquired Massey Energy, the coal company that ran the mine when the explosion occurred, has been struggling to put Massey’s long history of safety violations and reckless behavior behind it. (The federal agency that oversees coal mining has already cited Massey for 369 citations related to the Upper Big Branch explosion and levied more than $10 million in fines.)
According to Bruce Stanley, a West Virginia lawyer who handled the litigation related to the deaths of two coal miners in another Massey Energy mine in 2006, today’s $209 million settlement represents "a significant number, especially in these hard times." It is a sign that, after years of looking away, the Justice Department is getting serious about going after renegade coal operators.
How much of this will trickle down to families of the coal miners who lost their lives? The settlement includes $46.5 million for the families of the dead miners – which works out to about $1.5 million per family. Add this to civil settlements of about $3 million that some of the miners' families have already reached, and you get a market value for a dead coal miner of about $4.5 million. "Not enough," Stanley says, noting that former Massey CEO Don Blankenship received over $70 million in a lavish retirement package when he stepped down last year. "But when you look at it historically in terms of these kinds of settlements, it’s on the high end."
Talking about the market value of a dead coal miner might seem crass. But the truth is, that price tag will certainly have an impact on how coal companies operate. Mining coal is, after all, a commodity business – it’s all about getting the coal out of the ground as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Historically, coal miners have been viewed as commodities, too – important ones, maybe, but easily replaced. When the day comes that it’s cheaper to keep coal miners alive than to risk their lives in unsafe working conditions just to squeeze out a few extra tons of coal, well, that’s an important sign of progress.
One big question remains: Will Don Blankenship, whose mine-coal-at-any-cost business philosophy is seen by many as ultimately responsible for the disaster that killed the 29 men, and who is currently the subject of a criminal investigation into the disaster, be held personally responsible? Previous settlements between coal operators and miners’ families have included an agreement from prosecutors not to go after individuals who committed mine safety crimes.
Not this time. One Upper Big Branch miner has already been sentenced to 10 months in jail for faking documents and lying to investigators. A security chief at the mine also faces up to 25 years behind bars for lying to federal investigators and trying to destroy evidence. Last week, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin told Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette that prosecutors are not slowing their criminal investigation down: "If anything, certain aspects of our investigation are going into high gear."
In other words, Blankenship and others executives are not off the hook yet and could still see jail time – or at least face years defending their greed in court. Given how much political power Blankenship has long wielded in West Virginia, this a remarkable turn of events, and yet another sign that the glory days of Big Coal are the wane.