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Two Years After W. Va. Mine Disaster: Grief, Anger And Questions Linger

Tonight, in Whitesville, W.Va., mourners will silently walk with candles on sidewalks lined with luminary lights to remember the 29 coal miners who died two years ago today in the nation's worst mine disaster in 40 years.

That memorial will follow a 3 p.m. ET event in Beckley,W. Va., where an honor guard will ring a bell 29 times to mark the moment the Upper Big Branch coal mine erupted in a massive explosion.

Patty Quarles plans to attend both gatherings in memory of her son, Gary Wayne, who died in the April 5, 2010, blast. Quarles now has her son's image tattooed on a leg and still can't talk about that evening of waiting for news two years ago without breaking into tears.

"It's as bad right now," she says, sobbing, "as it was that night."

Dean Jones also died in the explosion and his sisters, mother and brother marked the second anniversary of their loss with a lawsuit against nine executives of Massey Energy, the company that owned the mine at the time of the tragedy.

"They blew a hole in our world when they killed our family," says Gene Jones, Dean's twin brother and a power company engineer. "And I've got news for them. We're not going away without a fight."

The lawsuit filed in Raleigh County, W.Va., alleges "intentional infliction of emotional distress" and targets as individuals former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, former COO Chris Adkins, former chief counsel Shane Harvey and former safety chief Elizabeth Chamberlin, among others.

The former executives, the lawsuit claims, "routinely, intentionally and explicitly placed corporate profit ahead of the safety and lives of miners...which routinely led to unwarrantable and flagrant violations" of mine safety law.

Attorney Bruce Stanley represents the Jones family and represented widows in another mine disaster involving Massey and Blankenship. He says the Upper Big Branch investigation conducted by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) specifically named Massey Energy, and not just the subsidiary company operating the mine, as complicit in the safety violations that led to the explosion.

"For the first time, the government has recognized that it's time to take down this artificial curtain,"Stanley says. "What it does is it makes clear that the responsibility for this situation ultimately rests with people and not companies."

Blankenship's attorney declined comment on the lawsuit but Blankenship and Massey have insisted the explosion was caused by natural forces and not negligence, as four investigations have concluded.

"We will never be able to come to terms with this loss knowing it was completely preventable," says Judy Jones Petersen, a Charleston physician and Dean Jones' sister. "We want them to be held responsible."

The lawsuit notes that Blankenship left Massey before it was purchased by Alpha Natural Resources last year and received a departure package valued at more than $86 million.

One of the former Massey managers named in the lawsuit has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate federal mine safety law. Gary May, a superintendant at Upper Big Branch at the time of the explosion, is cooperating with prosecutors and is believed to be providing evidence and testimony about other Massey officials.

Federal prosecutors have another guilty plea and a conviction in their ongoing criminal investigation but none of the charges so far are directly related to the conditions that caused the explosion, which was blamed on weak airflow underground, malfunctioning and poorly maintained safety systems, excessive explosive coal dust and company practices that put production before safety.

Alpha Natural Resources, the current owner of the mine, announced last night that it will seal all entrances, bore holes and fan shafts at Upper Big Branch by the end of the summer.

In a statement, Alpha didn't explain the decision to seal the mine but CEO Kevin Crutchfield said that "though two years have passed, everyone still has vivid memories of the tragedy and the suffering the miners' families endured."

Alpha's plan for sealing the mine must still be approved by state and federal regulators.

Miners familiar with the Eagle coal seam at Upper Big Branch say Alpha can still access the seam by digging entryways a few miles away. Alpha spokesman Ted Pile doesn't dispute that contention.

"It's conceivable that we are mining that seam from another access point miles away," Pile says. But, he adds, "We will not go back into [Upper Big Branch]."

Alpha says it has vastly improved on the safety record and atmosphere in the former Massey coal mines it acquired in a merger last year. The company also agreed in a settlement with the Justice Department to adopt new safety technology and conduct safety training for the entire industry. The $209 million settlement also includes a corporate criminal conviction for the company.

But Alpha continues to employ several former Massey managers and executives directly involved in the management of Upper Big Branch or another Massey mine singled out by MSHA as so dangerous it warranted a federal court injunction.

One of the former Massey officials supervises an entire division of Alpha mines, including many once operated by Massey.

"I don't think [we] want to get into public discussions about individual employees," says Alpha spokesman Pile. "It was made clear to them that Alpha would run the business differently than Massey with safety and employee involvement as our top values."

Pile says Alpha has trained 7,000 former Massey employees in the company's "Running Right" safety program and that MSHA enforcement actions at former Massey mines fell 45% after last year's takeover.

MSHA responded to the Upper Big Branch tragedy with surprise inspections targeting mines with persistent safety violations. But it has not accepted responsibility for regulatory failures that its own internal review and a separate independent review cited as factors in the explosion. The agency has instead blamed budget cuts in previous administrations and deceptive behavior by Massey Energy.

In the two years since the disaster, Congress has not enacted tougher mine safety laws. Investigators and federal prosecutors have said existing law provides little opportunity to hold high-level mining company officials responsible for mine disasters.

"The imperative to close loopholes in our nation's mining laws remains with us," says George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

"But, two years later, as the headlines and national attention have faded," Miller adds, "we are in danger of losing the sense of urgency that is so often essential to moving legislation to keep miners safe."

The mining industry announced this week a voluntary safety initiative "to achieve within five years mining's goal of eliminating fatalities and reducing the rate of mining injuries by 50 percent," according to the National Mining Association.

So far, 26 mining companies have signed on but many have not.

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Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.