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Mine Settlement Is In, But Closure Is Tougher

West Virginia State Police direct traffic at the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va., after an explosion April 5, 2010. Twenty-nine miners were killed in the blast. (AP)

The Justice Department and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration tried to bring closure Tuesday to two key aspects of last year's deadly coal mine disaster in West Virginia. The mine safety agency issued its final report on the explosion — a 13-pound document that blamed Massey Energy for putting production far ahead of safety — and the DOJ announced the largest settlement ever in a coal mine disaster.

Closure is a relative concept, with 29 lives lost, 29 families now with brothers, sons, fathers, grandfathers and husbands gone for 20 months. After all the news of the day, Gary Quarles stood in the hallway at the Mine Safety and Training Academy in Beckley, W.Va., trying to make sense of it all. He wore a black T-shirt with these words printed on the front: "Gary Wayne Quarles. Son. April 5, 2010."

"I'm the same right now as I was when I found out that he was dead," he said of his son. "And I can't see it changing, no matter how much money — if there's any — that comes our way or how many people go to jail. That's not gonna help me."

Earlier Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced to the families of the Upper Big Branch victims that he had reached a $210 million settlement with the owner of the mine.

"We can never place a value on the lives of these victims," Goodwin said. "What we did want to achieve through this resolution is to make sure that it wasn't simply a stroke of a pen writing a check. It was a commitment to making the lives of miners safe every day."

Justice is not if you have enough money to pay off your heinous acts then you may go free. And that's what's happening here.
Judy Jones Petersen, whose brother Dean was killed at Upper Big Branch

The settlement extracts from Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey Energy earlier this year, nearly $130 million for mine safety training and major safety equipment improvements. Although the settlement blames Massey for the conditions that led to the deadly explosion, Alpha will pay nearly $35 million in fines for Massey's safety violations. As much as $1.5 million will go to each of the families as restitution.

In return, no criminal charges will be filed against Alpha. That angers Judy Jones Petersen, a Charleston physician whose brother Dean died in the disaster.

"Justice is not if you have enough money to pay off your heinous acts then you may go free," she said. "And that's what's happening here. They have enough money, they have the wherewithal, and mind you, it's done on the backs of people whose lives were lost, but they have enough money to pay away their sins."

Goodwin said there are limited ways to punish a corporation.

"It is not a life. It is not a being. It can't go to jail," he said. "The only thing that it can do is help make sure something like this doesn't happen again."

Goodwin said his office is still considering criminal charges against former Massey executives and managers responsible for the Upper Big Branch mine. They can be charged, despite the settlement. He said the investigation has revealed criminal conduct but declined to be more specific.

In a written statement, Alpha Natural Resources said it's time to take the hard lessons and create positive change in the industry. Back at the mine safety academy, Gary Quarles struggled to take it all in, tears welling in his eyes.

"I ask myself all the time, I say, 'Where's my son at? And why did this happen to him?' "

The Mine Safety and Health Administration blamed systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts by Massey Energy to avoid compliance with safety laws. Quarles shook his head after hearing that.

"It's the same old story," he said.

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Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Lynn Neary.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with some closure on last year's deadly coal mine disaster in West Virginia. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration issued its final report today on the explosion that killed 29 miners. The report, a massive 13-pound document, blames Massey Energy reporting production far ahead of safety.

Also today, the Justice Department announced the largest settlement ever in a coal mine disaster. NPR's Howard Berkes reports on both developments for us from Beckley, West Virginia.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Closure is a relative concept with 29 lives lost, 29 families now with brothers, sons, fathers, grandfathers and husbands gone for 20 months. After all the news of the day, Gary Quarles stood in the hallway at the Mine Safety and Training Academy here in Beckley, West Virginia, trying to make sense of it all. Quarles wore a black t-shirt with these words printed on the front: Gary Wayne Quarles, son, April 5, 2010.

GARY QUARLES: I still - I'm the same right now as I was when I found out that he was dead. And I can't see it changing no matter how much money, if there's any, that comes our way, or how many people goes to jail. That's not going to help me, you know?

BERKES: The day began with news of money and jail. Booth Goodwin, the U.S. attorney here, announced to the families of the Upper Big Branch victims that he had reached a settlement with the owner of the mine, the biggest settlement ever in a mine disaster, totaling more than $200 million.

BOOTH GOODWIN: We can never place a value on the lives of these victims. What we did want to achieve through this resolution is to make sure that it wasn't simply a stroke of a pen writing a check. It was a commitment to making the lives of miners safe every day.

BERKES: The settlement extracts from Alpha Natural Resources nearly $130 million for mine safety training and major safety equipment improvements in Alpha Mines. Alpha bought Massey Energy earlier this year, and it was Massey that is blamed for the conditions that led to the deadly explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine. Still, Alpha will pay nearly $35 million in fines for Massey's safety violations, and as much 1.5 will go to each of the family as restitution. Alpha gets, in return, no criminal charges against the company itself. That angers Judy Jones Petersen, a Charleston physician, who's brother Dean died in the disaster.

JUDY JONES PETERSEN: And justice is not if you have enough money to pay off your heinous acts, then you may go free, and that's what's happening here. They have enough money, they have the wherewithal, and mind you, it's done on the backs of the people whose lives were lost. But they have enough money to pay away their sins.

BERKES: U.S. attorney Booth Goodwin responded this way, saying there are limited ways to punish a corporation.

GOODWIN: It is not a life. It is not a being. It can't go to jail. The only thing that it can do is help make sure that something like this doesn't happen again.

BERKES: Goodwin says his office is still considering criminal charges against former Massey executives and managers responsible for the Upper Big Branch mine. They can be charged despite the settlement. And the investigation, Goodwin added, has revealed criminal conduct. He declined to be more specific. In a written statement, Alpha Natural Resources says it's time to take the hard lessons and effect positive change for the industry. Back at the mine safety academy, Gary Quarles struggles to take it all in, tears well in his eyes.

QUARLES: I ask myself all the time. I say what - where's my son at and why did this happen to him, you know?

BERKES: Today, the Mine Safety and Health Administration blamed systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts by Massey Energy to avoid compliance with safety laws. Gary Quarles shook his head after hearing that. It's the same old story, he said. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Beckley, West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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