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Alpha Natural Resources (ANR), which bought out Massey Energy in June, which owned the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia where 29 men died in an explosion last year, has agreed to pay $209 million in civil and criminal penalties because of the accident. ANR also promised to make major safety improvements to its mine.  It is the largest settlement in a criminal investigation of a mine disaster in U.S. history, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

Alpha has agreed to pay $46.5 million in restitution to the families of those who died — plus two co-workers who survived the accident — $1.5 million per family. The company will spend $80 million to boost safety in all of its underground mines and set up a $48 million fund for mining-safety and health research. Alpha Natural Resources also agreed to pay $34.8 million in fines and fees that Massey Energy owed to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Before Tuesday, the largest penalty ever paid by a mining company had come in 2008, when Massey Energy agreed to pay $4.2 million in fines for a fire at the Aracoma Alma mine in West Virginia that trapped 12 miners and killed two. The company had admitted to knowingly violating mandatory safety standards in that accident.

As part of the safety measures, Alpha has pledged to install monitoring equipment at its underground mines to ensure that they are free of explosive methane gas and combustible coal dust. The company will also build a training facility and create a new safety curriculum for all of its miners.

Later on Tuesday, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is expected to announce the results of its investigation into the Upper Big Branch disaster.  (Wash Post, 12/6/2011)