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Walter settles with kin of coal-mine dead

Relatives of 13 men who died at a Walter Industries-owned coal mine in 2001 have reached a confidential settlement with the Tampa company.

The agreement, struck Friday, closes the books on the wrongful-death lawsuits family members filed after a Sept. 23, 2001, accident killed one miner and 12 others who sought to rescue him.

The tragedy remains the country's deadliest coal-mine disaster since 1984. Subsidiary Jim Walter Resources is still contesting a government report that held it partly responsible for the accident at Mine No. 5, leading to fines totaling $443,335. The mine is one of three the company owns in Brookwood, Ala.

"We are grateful that this matter has been fairly resolved for the benefit of the surviving members as well as our company and our employees," George Richmond, president of Jim Walter Resources, said in a written statement.

Until coal prices rose sky-high last year, parent Walter Industries was seeking to sell its mining and natural-gas operations and focus instead on its core businesses of homebuilding, home finance and iron pipe. Mine No. 5, which was nearing the end of its useful life, was slated to close in 2004. Both plans since have been abandoned, and today all three mines are generating strong earnings for Walter, which employs roughly 5,000 people and had revenues of $1.4-billion in 2003.

Friday's settlement is likely to have little impact on Walter's stock price, which has hovered at all-time highs in recent weeks thanks to coal's resurgence. Joe Troy, senior vice president for financial services, said a reserve amount the company set aside shortly after the accident will cover the settlement. No further charges to earnings will be needed.

"I've not had a single question on that (the wrongful-death lawsuits)," said Barbara Allen, an independent stock analyst in Scottsdale, Ariz., who has followed Walter Industries. "What investors are looking at are the coal contracts, and what the pricing is. And that's been very favorable."

Walter's stock closed Monday at $31.68 per share, up $1.16.

Expensing the emotional costs of the tragedy won't be so easy.

Gary Tramell was president of United Mine Workers of America Local 2368 back in 2001. Though he continues to work as an underground electrician at Mine No. 5, he gave up his $100-a-month union leadership post.

Tramell didn't have to deal with losing a loved one, he said. But he spent a lot of time consoling widows and children, sometimes taking the brunt of their anger.

"I had to resign," he said. "It was too much on me."

There have been no fatalities at Mines No. 4 or 5 since the 2001 accident, though two miners died last year in separate incidents at Mine No. 7. Walter's board approved a four-year plan last month to spend up to $135-million to increase coal production at Mine No. 7.

Tramell said he believes Mine No. 5 _ located nearly 2,200 feet below ground level _ is as safe as any in the country. Though that's not saying much, he added.

"If you think you've got a coal mine that's safe, you're living in an imaginary world," he said. "They're deep, rocky and gassy. And you've got the world over your head."

Walter's legal battle against fines levied by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration continues. The trial is expected to end this week, with a ruling due midyear.

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at baranciksptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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