Don Blankenship, CEO of coal giant Massey Energy, insisted on Thursday that safety has been his “number one priority” in his 20 years at the firm, after he was blasted by U.S. lawmakers for allegedly disregarding the basic welfare of his workers in the lead up to last month’s deadly mine explosion.
“Massey does not place profits over safety. We never have, and we never will,” Blankenship said in testimony to a senate subcommittee on labor and health and human services.
It was the beleaguered CEO’s first Congressional appearance since the April 5 calamity at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners. The blast was the deadliest mining disaster in the U.S. in nearly 40 years. Following the tragedy, the company’s homepage featured a bold headline that read “2009 Was a Record-Setting Year for Safety.”
The senate panel, held at the request of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a longtime supporter of Appalachia’s coal miners, aimed to reexamine the need for more government funding for mine safety.
But it quickly turned into a blistering confrontation with senators from both parties who challenged Blankenship over Massey’s inferior safety record even as the CEO claimed proper diligence.
Byrd, a Democrat, called Massey “a rogue mining company.” He said the firm has a “clear record of blatant disregard for the welfare and safety of Massey miners” and “a reputation for waving its nose at the law.”
The nine–term senator followed up with a zealous demand for answers from Blankenship.
“I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies, while at the same time boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers,” Byrd said.
“Massey energy officials who bear the ultimate, final responsibility for the health and safety of their works still have much to explain to the country and to the families of the miners who perished.”
Blankenship has long been accused by organized labor of overstating its safety record and being cavalier about mine safety.
“At the time of the Upper Big Branch explosion, Massey Energy had the worst fatality rate in the industry,” Cecil Roberts, the international president of the Virginia-based United Mine Workers of America, told the panel. “This is unacceptable.”
According to Roberts, Blankenship stands alone among industry executives in demonstrating contempt for mine safety laws.
“Ninety-five percent of the CEOs and companies in this nation try to do the right thing. They put a lot of money into protecting their workers. They have inspections and they have criteria for working in those mines,” he said.
“These other CEOs would not have put up with this for five minutes. Someone would have done something about this.”
In an impassioned query to lawmakers, the union leader declared:
“Why didn’t Don Blankenship shut this coal mine down?”
Indeed, records from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) show the Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., about 30 miles south of Charleston in the heart of coal country, had received 124 citations and safety orders this year alone. In 2009, the same mine received fines of nearly $1 million for 515 MSHA citations and safety orders.
Further, MSHA issued 48 withdrawal orders at the mine last year for repeated actions that violated safety and health rules — nearly 19 times the national rate for these kinds of violations, according to MSHA figures.
“We believe that the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine did not have to happen,” Joseph Main, assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, told senators.
Notably, the evidence of safety negligence — and resulting public, government and union outcry — have done nothing to shake up Massey’s senior leadership team.
At a Massey shareholders meeting this week, three of the company’s directors faced potential ouster votes in a proxy battle led by CtW Investment Group, a coalition of union-backed investment funds, who said the fallout from the explosion has led to a 30 percent drop in Massey’s share value.
The board of directors voted to re-elect the trio, albeit by a narrow margin. Meanwhile, in an April 22 statement, the board said Blankenship has their “full support and confidence.”
Massey is currently under investigation by the FBI for potential criminal conduct. MSHA and the the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health Safety and Training are also conducting probes into the explosion.
“Those people who do not protect the miners and follow those laws, they should be punished – up to and including jail,” Roberts said.
Blankenship: MSHA, Not Massey, to Blame
Blankenship insisted Massey Energy did nothing wrong in advance the disaster and laid the blame squarely on MSHA.
“Just days before the April 5 explosion, MSHA agreed that the Upper Big Branch mine had no major outstanding safety issues and found the mine to be in good condition,” he said in his opening remarks.
Casting a pall of mistrust over MSHA’s work, Blankenship urged Congress to ensure that the agency conducts an “open, public and transparent” investigation into the explosion.
“We do not think that MSHA should be able to investigate itself behind closed doors,” he said.
“How likely is MSHA to point the finger at itself if the evidence gathered in confidential interviews suggests that its actions contributed to the explosion? How do we know we’ll see all the evidence, or if all alternatives are aggressively explored if MSHA can investigate in secrecy?”
Sen. Byrd agreed, at least in part, that MSHA officials were not innocent bystanders to the deadly accident.
“Congress has authorized the most aggressive miner protection laws in the history of the world – the history of the universe. But certain laws aren’t worth a damn if the enforcement agency is not vigorous about demanding safety in the mines,” said Byrd.
“Assistant Secretary Main and his team at the Mine Safety and Health Administration still have much to explain regarding this tragedy at Upper Big Branch that happened on their watch,” said Byrd
For MSHA, legal and fiscal resources would be “critically important” in holding accountable mine operators for future violations, Main said. But dollars alone would not solve the problem.
“The needs are more than money,” Main told senators. “It is the responsibility of mine operators to comply with the mine act and mandatory health and safe standards to avert injury, disease and death.”
“Only when we change the culture of safety throughout the mining industry and all mine operators live up to their responsibility will all miners be safe.”