WV Mine Sealed; Lawsuit Filed

Monday, April 9, 2012 @ 02:04 PM gHale


The West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 men two years ago will be permanently sealed with concrete, the mine’s new owner said.

Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired the mine when it bought Massey Energy last summer, will seal the portals, the large tunnels miners use to get underground, at the Upper Big Branch mine. They will plug boreholes and cap the shafts that house the huge industrial fans meant to sweep bad air out of the mine. The job should wrap up by this summer, the company said.

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“Everyone still has vivid memories of the tragedy and the suffering the miners’ families endured,” Chief Executive Kevin Crutchfield said. “For all of us in the mining industry, it is a solemn reminder of why we must always put safety first in everything we do.”

Meanwhile, the mother and siblings of one of those killed filed suit against former Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship, along with eight other individuals they hold responsible in their lawsuit for the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four decades.

An explosion fueled by methane and coal dust ripped through the seven miles of underground corridors at the former Massey Energy mine on April 5, 2010.

Pittsburgh attorney Bruce Stanley filed the suit against the former Massey executives and mine managers in Raleigh County Circuit Court for the family of fallen miner Edward Dean Jones, just before the two-year statute of limitations expired. The complaint claims deliberate infliction of emotional distress and demands compensatory and punitive damages.

Blankenship, who has retired and virtually dropped from public view, did not immediately respond to efforts to get his comment on the lawsuit. His codefendants have moved on to other jobs.

The lawsuit does not target Massey or Alpha. Rather, it goes after individuals the Jones family says should have put their workers’ lives ahead of profits. Those named include Massey’s former general counsel Shane Harvey and former vice president for safety Elizabeth Chamberlin, both of whom reported directly to Blankenship.

Harvey declined comment and Chamberlin was not immediately available.

So far, two Massey employees have faced criminal charges over the explosion.

Former superintendent Gary May, a codefendant in Wednesday’s lawsuit, is the highest-ranking mine official charged so far. He has pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal government and is cooperating with prosecutors while awaiting sentencing in August.

Former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, meanwhile, is appealing his recent conviction and a three-year sentence for lying to investigators and ordering subordinates to destroy documents.

Jones’ twin brother, Gene Jones, said the lawsuit seeks to hold others accountable for their actions.

“They blew a hole in our world when they killed our family, and I’ve got news for them. We’re not going away without a fight,” he said.

The other plaintiffs are their mother, Ruby Nell Lafferty Jones, and sister Cheryl Sue Jones. Dean’s widow has reached a separate settlement.

In December, Alpha reached a $210 million non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that spared the corporation liability but left individuals open to prosecution. The deal guaranteed that the families of the dead miners and two co-workers who survived the explosion each receive $1.5 million.

Those who accept the payout can still pursue lawsuits, but the $1.5 million will be deducted from any settlement or jury award. At least eight families of dead miners previously settled with Massey.

The Jones family didn’t learn Dean’s fate until four days after the blast, when state mine safety officials informed them he had been found.

The lawsuit claims the family was led to believe he may have reached an underground safety chamber. Instead, he was actually killed instantly by powerful forces that knocked him down, then doubled back and struck him a second time.



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