U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver approved Aracoma Coal Co.’s plea deal despite a provision sparing Massey officials and the Richmond, Va., coal company from prosecution. The agreement also required Aracoma to pay a $1.7 million fine for civil violations found by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The charges center on a Jan. 19, 2006, fire at Aracoma’s Alma No. 1 mine about 60 miles from Charleston in West Virginia’s southern coalfields. Aracoma pleaded guilty to violating several federal safety requirements.
Miners Don Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfield got lost when thick smoke entered what was supposed to be a sealed escape route. While other crewmembers escaped through a secondary tunnel, Bragg and Hatfield got separated and perished. Government investigators later faulted Aracoma for removing two air-control walls that allowed smoke into the escape tunnel.
Separate state and federal investigations concluded an overheated conveyer belt caused the fire.
The Aracoma fire — along with methane gas explosions that killed 12 men at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and five at the Kentucky Darby mine in eastern Kentucky in 2006 — prompted sweeping changes to federal and state coal mine safety laws.
U.S. Attorney Charles Miller said the government is giving up little by agreeing to limit the prosecution to the subsidiary.
‘‘The evidence simply did not support a criminal prosecution of Massey or its officers,’’ Miller said after the sentencing. ‘‘The violations were limited to Aracoma.’’
He said the investigation continues.
Last week, Aracoma foreman David R. Runyon pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to conduct safety drills at the mine and his sentencing is scheduled for July 9.
Miller also noted federal law limits criminal prosecutions of mining accidents to willful violations of safety standards and falsifying records.
‘‘It may not be adequate to make the victims whole, but that’s all we have,’’ Miller said.
He said he told that to attorneys representing the widows of Bragg and Hatfield during the sentencing hearing. He added that he can’t legally ask Congress to change the law but victims’ relatives are free to lobby their lawmakers.
‘‘I tell them they’re under no constraints to talking to their congressmen,’’ he said.
Attorney Bruce Stanley, who represents the widows, asked Copenhaver to reject the plea deal, saying it protects Massey and Chief Executive Don Blankenship. Massey, the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer by revenue, settled a separate lawsuit brought by the widows in November. Terms were not disclosed.
‘‘The West Virginia delegation ought to heed the words that were said here today,’’ Stanley said after the hearing. ‘‘There is absolutely no excuse for what happened at the Alma mine.’’
Besides West Virginia, Massey operates coal mines in Virginia and Kentucky.