The operator of a West Virginia mine where 29 men were killed in a blast last year has agreed to pay a record $209 million to settle a criminal probe into safety violations, officials said Tuesday.
In the largest criminal settlement ever in a mining investigation, Alpha Natural Resources Inc., which took over the Upper Big Branch mine earlier this year, agreed to the payout, the Justice Department said.
"The tragedy at Upper Big Branch will never be forgotten, and the families affected by it will never be made completely whole again," Attorney General Eric Holder said.
"Today's agreement represents the largest-ever resolution in a criminal investigation of a mine disaster and will ensure appropriate steps are taken to improve mine safety now and will fund research to enhance mine safety in the future."
Alpha, which merged with the mine's former owners Massey Energy, will invest at least $80 million in mine safety improvements at all of its underground mines, including those formerly owned by Massey.
Alpha will also place $48 million in a mine health and safety research trust, to be used to fund research on mine safety.
In addition, the company will pay criminal restitution of $1.5 million to each of the families of the 29 miners killed in the 2010 blast and to the two individuals who were injured, for a total restitution payment of $46.5 million.
Penalties of up to $34.8 million will be paid to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"There should never be another UBB, and this announcement is aimed squarely at that goal," West Virginia U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin said.
"For far too long, we've accepted the idea that catastrophic accidents are an inherent risk of being a coal miner. That mindset is unacceptable.
"Collectively, these requirements will set a new standard for what can and should be done to protect miners. We look forward to a future in which coal mining is as safe as any other occupation."
The tragedy attracted national attention and President Barack Obama went to West Virginia to pay tribute to those who died in the worst U.S. mine accident in decades.
Massey Energy had been hit with dozens of safety violations over the years leading up to the accident.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2011