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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The University of Arizona, Virginia Tech and West Virginia University are among the first group of winners of research grants for a wide array of mine health and safety issues at the nation's mines.

The Alpha Foundation announced Monday it is awarding the first $10 million of the $48 million it has to spend. Sixteen research proposals won initial approval, and final budgets for them are now being discussed.

Chairman Michael Karmis said the proposals were chosen from a pool of 160, and more will be solicited in the future.

The only non-academic winner in the first round is the United Steelworkers, which will focus on identifying and controlling hazards in metal and non-metal mines.

The other winners are the Colorado School of Mines, Northeastern University, University of California-Berkeley, University of Illinois at Chicago, and the universities of Kentucky, Utah, Pittsburgh and Connecticut.

Virginia Tech will work on through-the-earth communication systems and a new risk-management approach to safety, while WVU will work on safety systems at surface mines and mobile training technology. WVU's grants will go through the WVU Foundation.

Northeastern University will focus on whole-body vibration exposure and injury prevention at open-pit coal mines, while UC-Berkeley will focus on heart disease and lung cancer deaths linked to particulate matter and diesel exhaust.

The foundation aims to fill gaps and overcomer barriers to scientific research, not duplicate existing work. It was formed under a $210 million settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

Alpha bought the former Massey Energy Co., which owned Upper Big Branch in southern West Virginia when a massive explosion ripped through its underground corridors in 2010, killing 29 men. It was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years.

The non-prosecution agreement spared the company from facing criminal charges, but individuals are still on the hook for their conduct. Two Upper Big Branch officials and a former Massey executive who ran other mines are already behind bars.

The agreement consisted of $35 million in fines for safety violations at Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines, $46.5 million in restitution to the miners' families and $128 million for safety improvements, research and training. Alpha agreed to invest $48 million of that in a mine-safety research trust, and the foundation was formed the following April.

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Online:

Alpha Foundation: http://www.alpha-foundation.org/

Associated Press,

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