Massey Energy, owner of the coal mine where at least 25 miners died this week, and its outspoken chief executive, Don Blankenship, have long been lightning rods for critics of the coal industry. And although the company says that its safety record is better than the industry average, Massey has frequently been cited for safety violations, including about 50 citations at the Upper Big Branch mine in March alone. Many of those 50 citations were for poor ventilation of dust and methane, failure to maintain proper escape ways, and the accumulation of combustible materials.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the mine for 1,342 safety violations from 2005 through Monday for a total of $1.89 million in proposed fines, according to federal records. The company has contested 422 of those violations, totaling $742,830 in proposed penalties, according to federal officials.
Blankenship has called congressional Democrats seeking climate change legislation “greeniacs” and “all crazy.” He’s said, “I don’t believe that climate change is real,” and that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) “don’t know what they’re talking about.” And in a video promoting a Labor Day music and political event last year, he said, “We’re going to have Hank Williams and a very good time, but we’re also going to learn how environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your job.”
He has also thrown his weight around West Virginia, shelling out more than $3 million of his own money for ads to help defeat a West Virginia state Supreme Court justice. Blankenship expected the justice to rule against Massey in an appeal of a $50 million award for a small coal company owner, who convinced a jury that Massey had driven his company into bankruptcy. The new judge cast the deciding vote against the $50 million award. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the new judge should have recused himself.
As a director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Blankenship has helped buttress the chamber’s tough position against a climate change bill that many other corporate members support. In November, he donated $30,400 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Blankenship is also a longtime foe of unions, earning the enmity of union leaders. The mine where the accident took place Monday is a nonunion mine.
Although environmental groups have been working to stop the construction of new coal-fired power plants in order to stop the increase in greenhouse gases, coal continues to play a major role in the nation’s energy picture. A little less than half of electricity in the United States is generated by coal-fired plants. And coal is also used by much of U.S. industry for power needs.
News of the mine disaster pummeled the stock of Massey, the nation’s fourth largest coal company. At 1:30 p.m., the company’s stock was down more than 10 percent, erasing more than $400 million of market value. Massey, which is headquartered in Richmond, has operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia and is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia.
The company boasts on its Web site that it has a good safety record compared with the rest of the industry. “In 2009, Massey recorded an all-time best NFDL incident rate (a measure of lost-time accidents) of 1.67,” the site says. “This is an improvement over last year’s rate of 1.93, our previous best result. By comparison, the bituminous coal mining industry average NFDL rate was 2.95 in 2008. 2009 marked the 6th consecutive year and the 17th year out of the past 20 years in which Massey’s safety performance was stronger than the industry average.”
But the company had a litany of violations just last month at the Upper Big Branch mine, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration Web site. In March, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials cited the mine, which is owned by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co., for failing to control dust; improperly planning to ventilate the mine of dust and the combustible gas methane; inadequate protection from roof falls; failing to maintain proper escapeways; and allowing the accumulation of combustible materials.”
Mining companies are permitted to contest violations and proposed penalties and safety violations are not placed on a company’s permanent safety record until a dispute is settled, officials said. The 2006 MINER Act in the wake of the 2006 Sago Mine disaster bolstered the agency’s inspection staff and increased penalties for safety violations. The change in law has led to a higher number of citations and penalties and more challenges by companies, federal mine safety officials said.
The Associated Press reports that “in seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics. One miner was killed at the operation in a July 2003 electrical accident and another in a March 2001 roof fall, according to MSHA records.”
Blankenship has a Twitter feed, but he has not written anything about the accident and has not updated the feed in the past week. On March 26, he posted a link to a list of senators who he said “support higher taxes, higher electric bills and fewer American jobs.” Earlier that day, he wrote: “New study in Geophysical Research Letters finds strong winds cause ice loss in Arctic Those full of hot air like Gore should avoid the Arctic.”
Staff reporter Ed O’Keefe and research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.