Coal Company Gets Record $200 Million Penalty for Mine Disaster that Left 29 Dead

TV19 - DD Meighen via Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

You might recall that last year, an explosion in a coal mine operated by Massey Energy left 29 people dead. And in the wake of the disaster, it was revealed that the company had a storied history of ignoring safety violations or endlessly contesting them in court so as to avoid addressing them.

Since then, investigators have turned up even more alarming stuff: For instance, the New York Times reveals that Massey kept two separate sets of books--one false set to deliberately deceive safety inspectors. They also confirmed that Massey had hidden hundreds of safety violations and health codes. And that, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, Massey "promoted and enforced a workplace culture that valued production over safety, including practices calculated to allow it to conduct mining operations in violation of the law.”

In other words, Massey Energy, and its parent company, Alpha Natural Resources, is guilty of truly brain-busting amounts of illegal activity. Of course, since this is a corporation that left 19 people dead, and not, say, a terrorist, the punishment will be doled out primarily in fines.

But at least they'll be hefty fines.

Here's the Times: "In what officials say is the largest settlement ever in a government investigation of a mine disaster, Alpha Natural Resources agreed to pay $209 million in restitution and civil and criminal penalties for the role of its subsidiary, Massey Energy, in a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 men in West Virginia." That includes $46 million in restitution for the miners' families.

On top of that, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is slapping Alpha with an additional $10 million fine for its violations. That's another record-breaking sum, according to the agency.

Investigators evidently haven't ruled out pressing criminal charges against the individual executives who were primarily responsible for ignoring the violations, but a stipulation in the settlement in effect immunizes Alpha from further criminal investigation.

The best that can be said of this development is that it is possibly, just maybe, a large enough sum to cause a ripple of concern through the industry regarding too-lax safety standards. At least, that's what the financial analyst quoted in the Times says. But it seems to me that we should probably remain skeptical about any notion that coal mining companies will be rushing to bolster their safety protocol. No, if I had to wager a prediction, I doubt very much that safety culture will be much improved across the industry, even in the wake of these considerably sized fines. Corporate culture that demands ever-expanding profit margins simply trumps any momentary concerns for things like environmental health or worker safety, and companies are more than capable of convincing themselves that such atrocities will never happen to them.

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