CHARLESTON –- The wives of two deceased coal miners who were killed in a fire spoke out against a plea deal that prohibits prosecutors from suing certain Massey officials.
Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield, whose husbands died in Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County on Jan. 19, 2006, asked U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver to reject a plea deal in which Massey subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. agreed to pay a $2.5 million criminal fine.
Prosecutors disclosed on Dec. 23 that Aracoma would admit to criminal safety violations in the deaths of its employees, Don Bragg and Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield.
On Wednesday, Aracoma submitted its 10-count plea deal, which included one felony charge and 10 criminal charges.
In the deal, the company admitted to failing to provide a proper escape tunnel out of the mine, to failing to conduct required evacuation drills and to making a record book look like the drills had been performed when they had not been.
In addition to the $2.5 million in criminal fines, the company agreed to pay $1.7 million in civil fines to resolve safety citations issued by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Also under the deal, prosecutors agreed not to bring charges against Massey, Aracoma's parent company, or any of its officials.
However, prosecutors are still allowed to bring charges against Aracoma mine managers and foremen.
During the plea submission, Bragg told Copenhaver that officials high in the Massey company emphasized production over miners' safety.
"If Massey executives have done nothing wrong and bear no criminal responsibility for the fire that killed Don and Elvis, then why do they need this deal?" Bragg asked in a prepared statement. "If they're innocent, they don't."
She also criticized the portion of the deal that allows charges to be brought against Aracoma foremen and mine managers rather than Massey officials.
"If it is true that it is easier to put an executive in jail for causing pollution to a stream or to the air than it is for causing the death of a coal miner, then shame on all of us for letting it be so," she said.
Bragg's and Hatfield's husbands were trying to evacuate the Aracoma underground mine during the January 2006 fire when they ran into dense, dark smoke. They attempted to find another way out, but got lost and eventually died.
Before he accepts the plea, Copenhaver told Massey he wants more information including the names of other miners who have claims against the company and the amount of the widow's civil settlement.
He told prosecutors to make other miners who were working the day of the fire aware of the plea deal in case they want to claim restitution.
Copenhaver announced that he would ask for and make public the settlement amount between Aracoma and Bragg and Hatfield.
He set a sentencing hearing for April 15.