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Alpha Natural Resources to pay $210M over Upper Big Branch disaster

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alpha Natural Resources will pay $210 million to avoid corporate criminal charges following the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.

Alpha acquired Upper Big Branch and other mines across Appalachia this year when it bought Massey.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced the settlement -- one of the largest ever for workplace safety crimes.

Alpha will pay up to $35 million in civil penalties related to conditions at the Upper Big Branch, $45 million to families of the men killed and injured in the disaster, $80 million to improve the safety of all the company's current mines, and $48 million to fund mine safety research.

The non-prosecution agreement with Alpha does not let individuals at Massey off the hook for future charges. Indeed, Goodwin said the settlement allows prosecutors to focus on bringing specific charges against specific people. Goodwin said his investigation had "revealed criminal conduct."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby said the settlement does not detail what crimes prosecutors might bring against individuals because doing so could impede the investigation. He suggested the details could lead to witness intimidation.

Ruby too said there is "known criminal wrongdoing" by individuals who worked at Massey. The settlement suggests Massey employees gave misleading statements that violated health and safety regulations and impeded the work of mine regulators.

It was not clear how the company and the prosecutors arrived at the $209 million figure. Goodwin said the deal represented a "balance."

Goodwin said the figure took into account that Alpha -- West Virginia's third largest private employer -- continues to employ 14,000 miners across the region. Goodwin said he did not want the settlement to affect the miners' ability to put food on their tables.

"We want to make sure they get home safely," Goodwin said.

Goodwin said the settlement allows investigators to focus on individuals whose conduct may be criminal. Money, he suggested, was the price that Alpha could pay since companies can't be jailed.

"It's not a life, it's not a being, it can't go to jail," Goodwin said of Alpha.

Goodwin said he was convinced that Alpha was committed to running safe mines.

As part of the agreement:

* The 29 families and the families of two men who survived but were seriously injured in the explosion will each receive $1.5 million -- a total of $46.5 million. The payments do not interfere with $3 million legal settlements Massey has already paid to some families, nor does it prevent pending civil litigation against Alpha by families who rejected the $3 million settlement.

* Alpha has also agreed to spend $80 million installing technology in its mines to monitor methane levels and coal dust, two fuels that investigators believe caused and sustained the massive explosion that tore through Upper Big Branch on April 5, 2010.

Alpha will also install equipment to dust the mine with explosion-inhibiting rock dust and to provide oxygen to miners in the case of an explosion. Ruby said these steps would put Alpha "above and beyond baseline compliance" with existing mine safety regulations. He said the expenditure was not intended simply to bring the company into compliance with existing standards. He said the monitoring systems would provide a 24/7 picture of conditions in the mine that will provide continual verification of compliance with mine safety standards.

* Alpha will put $48 million in a trust fund to pay for research to "advance the state of the art in mine safety." Three people selected by Alpha and approved by the U.S. Attorney's Office will oversee the trust fund. The individuals have not yet been named.

The agreement is in effect for two years. Alpha's failure to comply with the settlement could re-expose it to criminal liability, prosecutors said. However, it will be hard for the public to know if Alpha is complying. Regular progress reports by the company to the U.S. Attorney do not have to be made public, Goodwin said.




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