Prosecute Mine Safety Scofflaws

The $210 million settlement over the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster indeed sends a message to industry, as was emphasized Tuesday. Undoubtedly it will do some good in making U.S. coal mines safer.

But the settlement, being paid by a coal company, is a warning to companies, not necessarily individuals.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, of the Southern District of West Virginia, was among those announcing the settlement between the government and Alpha Natural Resources.

Alpha actually had nothing to do with the Upper Big Branch disaster, in which 29 miners died in April 2010. At the time, the mine in southern West Virginia was owned by Massey Energy, which was acquired earlier this year by Alpha.

Money from the settlement will be used for a variety of purposes, including new mine safety programs and compensating families of the dead miners. But the money will come from Alpha’s corporate coffers, meaning the firm’s earnings may be lessened and it may have to pass some of the cost on to customers.

Still, individuals responsible for the scores of mine safety violations uncovered at Upper Big Branch will not have to pay.

That doesn’t mean they are off the hook. Goodwin stressed Tuesday his office, which already has been involved in some successful prosecutions of individuals for mine safety violations, will continue to pursue those responsible for the Upper Big Branch tragedy.

Again, the gigantic settlement will focus corporate officials – not just in mining but also in other industries – more on safety. No CEO wants to explain to stockholders why he lost a fifth of a billion dollars by cutting safety corners or winking at violations.

But on down the food chain, where lower level supervisors and perhaps even non-management personnel may decide the rules are not important, criminal prosecutions will be the only deterrent. Goodwin is right to continue investigating the Upper Big Branch catastrophe – and holding those responsible accountable.