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Family sues safety contractor over US coal mine deaths

10 April 2012

The father of a 25-year-old coal miner killed in West Virginia's Upper Big Branch disaster is suing a company that was under contract to do safety examinations for Massey Energy, which owned the mine. Scott Napper has opened a case against David Stanley Consultants, two years after the worst US mining disaster in decades. The blast killed 29 men, including his son, Josh, who worked for the safety consultancy.

The current mine owners say Upper Big Branch will be closed and sealed
The current mine owners say Upper Big Branch will be closed and sealed

Josh's uncle, 51-year-old Tim Davis Sr., and cousin, 20-year-old Cory Davis, also died in the explosion, which began when a methane gas ignition then turned into a huge blast fuelled by combustible coal dust that had been allowed to accumulate. Ventilation and equipment problems contributed to the blast, which devastated seven miles of the mine’s underground passages and galleries.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited David Stanley for two contributory violations in the disaster in December. The wrongful death lawsuit claims David Stanley is as much to blame as Massey for failing to correct the conditions that led to the explosion.

Months before his death, Josh Napper gave his fiancee an envelope with a handwritten letter to his then 19-month-old daughter, Jenna, suggesting that he was worried about conditions at the mine.

In all, MSHA's final report on the disaster detailed 369 safety violations at Upper Big Branch, including nine of flagrant violations, the most serious designation, including illegally tipping off miners that inspectors were on the site and failing to conduct proper safety inspections.

The lawsuit says that while some unsafe conditions were created by Massey, others were created by David Stanley's failure to do the job it was hired to do.

At the same time, the family of dead miner Edward Dean Jones is suing former Massey Energy chief Don Blankenship along with eight other individuals, including the company's former general counsel Shane Harvey and former vice president for safety Elizabeth Chamberlin.

So far, only two Massey employees have faced criminal charges over the explosion. Former superintendent Gary May, a codefendant in the Jones lawsuit, is the highest-ranking mine official charged so far. He has pleaded guilty to defrauding the federal government and is cooperating with prosecutors while awaiting sentencing in August.

Former security chief Hughie Elbert Stover, meanwhile, is appealing his recent conviction and a three-year sentence for lying to investigators and ordering subordinates to destroy documents.

Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired the mine when it bought Massey Energy last year, said it was closing and sealing the mine. The company said it would seal the portals, boreholes and shafts with concrete to prevent any future access.

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