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Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster Could Lead to Criminal Charges

Online Exclusive: West Virginia State Prosecutor Speaks Out on Mine Disaster

The massive explosion that killed 29 workers at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia was the deadliest mine disaster in the U.S. since 1970. The blast occurred 1,000 feet underground on April 5. Within days, allegations swirled that the tragedy was part of a pattern of lax safety practices by the mine's owner, Performance Coal Co., and the parent company, Massey Energy.

The Upper Big Branch disaster could fit that bill. Rescue workers described damage at the scene as unprecedented, and Massey's history of safety problems at the mine will no doubt work against it.

"The worse your record is, the easier it is for a prosecutor to show that you are negligent," Cross says. "In a coal mine situation, if a particular manager knew there were dangerous levels of methane or coal dust accumulating and didn't take steps to get the employees out, that would be a pretty clear example of criminal negligence."

At the very least, getting to the bottom of the matter before investigators and prosecutors do puts the company in a better position to defend its conduct.

"I don't mean to be trite about this, but information is power," Arseneault says. "Quickly identifying any information that is critical to an inquiry allows you to better advise your board of directors on which way to proceed."

Contributing Author

Steven Andersen

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