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July 16, 2014

Feds, widows agree to settle mine fire lawsuit

FAIRMONT — The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has agreed to pay $1 million to settle a lawsuit over the deaths of two miners in a 2006 fire at an underground coal mine in West Virginia, according to court documents.

Under the proposed settlement, MSHA also agreed to develop a training course at the National Mine Safety and Health Academy in Raleigh County on preventing fires at underground coal and non-metal mines.

The agency did not admit any liability.

Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, the widows of Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield, sued MSHA in April 2010. The lawsuit alleged that the agency was negligent in its regulation of Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine before the Jan. 19, 2006, fire.

The widows filed a petition last week asking the U.S. District Court in Charleston to approve the settlement, which was first reported by the Sunday Gazette-Mail.

“The coal fields have needlessly produced far too many widows, far too many broken bodies, and far too much corruption,” the widows’ lawyer, Bruce Stanley, said Tuesday in an emailed statement.

“Delorice and Freda fervently hope that the proposed training course will prevent another Aracoma, but they also hope that the government’s ongoing criminal investigation will help end the management thinking that leads to an Aracoma or Upper Big Branch,” Stanley said, referring to a 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 coal miners.

An MSHA spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the proposed settlement.

A faulty ventilation system caused smoke from the fire to flood the Aracoma mine’s escape route, reducing visibility. The miners also struggled to find an unmarked personnel door in the dark and tried to use their breathing devices but lacked the training to properly activate them.  

Ten men made it out alive, but Bragg and Hatfield died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

MSHA’s review of the fire acknowledged significant lapses by inspectors, supervisors and district managers at the Logan County mine.

U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver Jr. had dismissed the lawsuit in 2011, ruling that MSHA was not liable for the men’s deaths because its inspectors could not be held negligent under the law. The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, reinstated the lawsuit in June 2013 after the West Virginia Supreme Court said inspectors can be held liable and sued when a negligent inspection results in the wrongful death of a coal miner.

The widows settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, for undisclosed terms in 2008. Massey was later bought by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.

In the MSHA case, each family would receive $500,000. Proceeds from the 2008 settlement would be used to pay the litigation costs.

 

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