BECKLEY — Nine years after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, a woman whose husband died in the explosion received a $550,000 settlement from the federal government Thursday.
U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger officially approved the settlement in the wrongful death suit at a hearing in Beckley Thursday afternoon. The lawsuit, filed by Carolyn Diana Davis, said the federal government didn’t do its job stopping the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, which killed 29 people, including her husband, Charles Timothy Davis.
She filed the lawsuit on the eighth anniversary of the explosion in Raleigh County last year. Davis and the federal government reached the settlement March 1, which Berger approved Thursday, dismissing the case.
The lawsuit said the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration didn’t “exercise reasonable care” and breached its responsibility to Charles Timothy Davis by “failing to inspect and/or report numerous blatant, fundamental and grave violations of generally accepted coal mine safety standards.”
The lawsuit cited the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel’s report, which said MSHA knew about UBB’s faulty ventilation system and ignored warning signs. The panel was headed by former MSHA head J. Davitt McAteer and found four specific flaws: UBB’s history of methane-related events; 40 revisions to the mine’s ventilation plan drafted by UBB management and given to MSHA; the agency’s inability to collect rock dust samples; and its “inability to connect the dots of the many potentially catastrophic failures taking place at the mine — especially the mine operator’s failure to properly ventilate the mine, to control methane, to apply sufficient amounts of rock dust,” according to the report.
The explosion at UBB happened around 3 p.m. on April 5, 2010, during a shift change, when a spark ignited a pocket of methane, causing massive explosions in the mine. Federal investigators say an accumulation of coal dust exacerbated the explosion, which blasted through more than 2 miles of mine workings. The Upper Big Branch mine was operated by Performance Coal, a subsidiary of Massey Energy.
Don Blankenship, former Massey Energy CEO, spent a year in federal prison for conspiring to violate mine safety laws. Last year, he ran in the Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia and lost to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
On Thursday, Berger called the settlement “fair and reasonable” and said it was important that Davis got closure. In the courtroom, a lawyer for the federal government agreed to the settlement and said he didn’t have anything else to add.
Davis and her daughter, Misty Cooper, sat in Berger’s courtroom for the 25-minute hearing.
“This is it, it’s been a long nine years,” Davis said after Berger approved the settlement. “We thought MSHA could’ve stopped it.”
She talked about her husband, who she met at a basketball game in Dakota when they were teenagers. They would’ve been married 40 years this year.
He was tough, Davis said, with “these big old green eyes that would pierce you.” He loved his three kids, and worked hard for them, she said. His son, Dakota (named for the town where they met), also worked at Upper Big Branch. Two of her nephews died in the disaster.
This week, Davis’ grandson is graduating high school, and decorated his graduation cap for his grandfather.
“We’ll never let anyone forget,” Davis said.
Time hasn’t made it easier, Cooper said. Every day is just as hard as the first.
“This is for dad,” she said.
Editor's note: Davis' grandson was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.