Four West Virginia elected officials commented yesterday, on the settlement reached as a result of the Upper Big Branch mining disaster, where 29 men were killed in an explosion, and on the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s subsequent investigation.
“Words can’t describe how disturbing it is that this tragedy could have been prevented,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), said, “and all of the official reports that have been issued in this investigation agree on that point.”
“What is clear from these findings is that these mistakes are totally unacceptable and should never be repeated,” Manchin said. “With an independent report and a federal report now confirming that this could have been prevented, my commitment is to work across party lines to find meaningful mine reform that prioritizes worker safety and makes sure that no company puts profits ahead of the precious lives of our people.”
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller echoed Manchin’s statement, saying it was “tragically clear that Massey managed the UBB mine without the culture of safety and compliance that miners deserve and the law requires.” He too said that the explosion was not an accident and could have been prevented.
U.S. Representative Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) expressed hope that the settlement reached sends a strong message that the government would not tolerate operators who fail to ensure the safety of miners.
He also said that the settlement has a “critical component,” which “denies the protection of the corporate cloak to former Massey officials who may have played a role in that disaster and keeps alive the chance that they will ultimately be brought to justice.”
“(Relatives of the miners killed) want and deserve accountability from Massey representatives whose callous disregard for the safety of the company’s own miners contributed to that tragedy,” Rahall said.
Rockefeller agreed with Rahall’s statement, noting that it was “Important that the U.S. Attorney’s office held its ground regarding ongoing criminal investigations, so that individual officers and agents of Massey can be held fully accountable for their actions.”
Manchin was also pleased that criminal charges could also be warranted despite the settlement, saying “There should be no immunity for anyone who is determined to be responsible in any way for the tragedy at UBB.”
“While nothing can replace the beloved miners who we lost that terrible day,” Manchin said, “criminal restitution is an appropriate recognition of the fact that we all have zero tolerance for anything corporations do - or don’t do - that leads to a mine fatality.”
“Miners and their families also deserve reforms to the law to make mines safer and penalize wrongdoing,” Rockefeller said. “…I intend to review the details of this report and settlement more closely in the coming days, and I will keep pushing my colleagues in Congress to vote for new mine safety reforms.”
Three investigations to date, including the MSHA investigation finalized yesterday, have all found that the central factor in the UBB explosion was a “corporate culture that put production ahead of safety.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said that he also looks forward to reviewing MSHA’s report of the tragedy, and hoped that it would be able to provide information to prevent any sort of future mining disaster.
“We can never, nor should we ever, forget the loss suffered by the victims’ families,” Tomblin said, “and these thoughts keep the importance of finding solutions to prevent future catastrophes foremost in my mind. Working together, I am confident we can all provide a safer environment for our miners.”
However, Rockefeller said that “nothing in these or any other announcements can truly ease the pain suffered on that awful day when we lost 29 brave miners at UBB.”
“If we do everything in our power to learn from the UBB disaster and make other mines safer, we can take some meaningful consolation in these developments,” Rockefeller said. “Today’s final MSHA report sheds additional light on the causes of the UBB disaster and will give our miners’ families some much-needed answers.”
Rockefeller also called the settlement a “significant step forward for coal miners, their families, and the coal industry,” and praised Alpha Natural Resources, Inc., the company that purchased Massey Energy, which owned UBB at the time of the explosion.
Manchin also spoke highly of Alpha Natural Resources, Inc.
“Even though Alpha did not own the Upper Big Branch mine at the time of the disaster,” Manchin said, “I applaud the company for taking responsibility for both the mistakes that were made and for investing in the future of mining to help prevent another tragedy like this from ever taking place.”
The $210 million settlement will go toward compensating the grieving families, bankrolling cutting-edge safety improvements and paying for years of violations by Massey Energy.
“This comprehensive and forward-looking settlement takes the right steps to truly protect our miners,” Manchin said. “By investing more than $120 million in mine safety - including improvements to existing mines, a new West Virginia safety training facility and a research trust - this agreement demonstrates that the government and the company are serious about creating a true legacy of mine safety.”
The UBB investigation, in total, has spanned 18 months and cost more than $5 million.
“This is not the end, but I hope it is the beginning of the end for those of us who have sought the truth and continue to seek justice for the 29 miners who perished at UBB,” Rahall said. “Toward that end, I fully support the Justice Department’s continuing probe into any and all individuals who may be criminally responsible for the UBB tragedy.”
Manchin said that April 5, 2010, the day of the explosion, was “one of our state’s most heartbreaking days.”
“I hope and pray that we will never again endure a tragedy like the UBB deaths, and I will work every day to make sure that we don’t.”
Rahall said that the settlement “should serve as a warning to those who neglect the safety and well-being of miners,” but that it would not soothe everyone affected by the disaster.
“…It will not end the nightmare for so many relatives of the miners who perished or were injured at Upper Big Branch.”