Reminder: Spike Maynard on the Aracoma Mine fire

February 2, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.


What an odd coincidence that former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard announced his candidacy for Congress the same day that we learned of a major court ruling in the litigation surrounding the fatal January 2006 fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine.

Why? Because one of the e-mails that surfaced (because of dogged reporting by The Associated Press) between Maynard and Massey CEO Don Blankenship concerned the Aracoma fire and the deaths of miners Ellery Hatfield and Don Bragg.

As we’ve noted before over on the Gazette’s Sustained Outrage blog:

Among other things, the five e-mails contained one note in which Maynard  comments to Blankenship about part of the law firm Web site of one of Maynard’s primary election opponents, Menis Ketchum, that describes the firm’s work on mine safety cases and refers to the Jan. 29, 2006, fire that killed two workers at Massey’s Arcoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County. Maynard wrote to Blankenship:

This one you gotta see — Aracoma is mentioned — you could have prevented it if you had only operated the mine properly according to Menis.

Maynard’s e-mail messages to Blankenship are posted here, and the Web sites he’s referring to are here.

What is it that Maynard told Blankenship he just had to see? Well, Ketchum’s former law firm outlined on its Web site — like a lot of firms do — the kinds of work they perform. And it had this to say about coal mine accident cases:

Coal mining is one of the world’s most dangerous occupations.

Yet, it took three mine disasters, Sago, Maverick and Aracoma, to remind people in West Virginia, Kentucky and around the world of the inherent dangers coal miners face. Such disasters are not necessary and can be prevented if coal mine companies, machinery and equipment manufacturers and contractors are held accountable for failing to implement, practice and enforce  coal mine safety.

So, could the Aracoma fire — and the deaths of two miners — been avoided if Massey had operated the Aracoma Mine properly?

Well, Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty in federal court to 10 criminal charges, including one felony, and paid $2.5 million in criminal fines.  In the plea agreement, Aracoma admitted that one of the violations — the failure to replace a key ventilation wall — “resulted in the deaths” of Bragg and Hatfield.

In ruling in favor of miners who survived the Aracoma fire, Logan Circuit Judge Roger Perry cited this guilty plea:

Aracoma’s conduct in this case is clear and uncontroverted. Given the voluntary admissions of guilt, it is clear not only that Aracoma acted with deliberate intent regarding the unsafe working conditions in its coal mine, it acted with criminal intent.

As the campaign develops, it will be interested to see how Spike Maynard explains his statement about the Aracoma fire, and whether as a member of Congress he would support strict enforcement — including criminal prosecution — of the rules meant to ensure that coal miners make it home every day to their families.


23 Responses to “Reminder: Spike Maynard on the Aracoma Mine fire”

  1. concerned miner says:

    Wow, is it just me or does anyone else hear the cricket sounds coming for the anti coal side.

  2. […] Reminder: Spike Maynard on the Massey Aracoma Mine fire (Coal Tattoo) […]

  3. roselle says:

    Am I getting this right? Maynard is implying that Don Blankenship had some responsibility in a wrongful death. The courts agree, but the deceased miners have settled, so the legal action involves injuries the survivors suffered, and which Massey contests. If the families of the miners who died had gone to court, it would have taken years to get a settlement and Don has sway over at least one of the judges. Maybe that was one reason to settle. And even though Don escaped civil liability for the fire (so far) he may eventually face criminal charges stemming from his refusal to follow the law? Or does he get away with it just like he gets away with breaking the environmental laws?

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Click through the links … especially this one:

    In the plea agreement, prosecutors pledged not to pursue charges against parent company Massey or any of its officers or employees. The joint statement added that the government “does not have evidence suggesting that Massey knew, approved or acquiesced in, Aracoma’s failure to maintain true and accurate records of escapeway drills.”


  5. roselle says:

    So he gets away with it?

    The evidence seems to suggest that Blankinship runs the show. Everyone I know believes this, and Don has flown over my house in his helicopter on several occasions, and has been present at a few of our demonstrations. He is widely reported in the business as a micro manager. So he probably not only knew of non compliance, he would have had to approve it. I mean, they don’t pay him 20 million for nothing and if he retired, I’d bet Massey’s stock would fall off a cliff. He is Massey. And evidently, he is beyond the law.

  6. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Also, to clarify, I don’t believe any court has ruled that Blankenship “had some responsibility” in a wrongful death.

    While the widows’ lawsuit named Blankenship personally as a defendant, he did not settle — Aracoma Coal Co. did — and the settlement dropped the case against Blankenship. And, the survivors have not sued Blankenship personally, so there has been no court ruling of the type you describe.

    What Judge Perry did was allow the plaintiffs in that case to proceed to make their case against the parent company, Massey Energy (and I believe Massey Coal Services as well), before a jury. Massey had sought to be dismissed as a matter of law, but the judge said it was an issue for the jury.


  7. Casey says:

    Massey runs a lot of mines and their overall safety effort is probably best represented by their NFDL rate when compared to their peers. The industry average was 2.95 in 2008 and Massey experienced 1.67 in 2009. They beat the industry average for six straight years. This is no accident.

  8. Clem Guttata says:

    Casey — Thanks for offering those figures. Is there somewhere on the web I can look those up easily?

    Since you seem to have ready access to industry figures, I’ll ask: compared to the industry average, does Massey operate more or less surface mines?

  9. Casey says:

    I believe the question that you want answered has to do with the separate NFDL rates for deep and surface operations, which take into account the man-hours of exposure, and then compare to the industry averages. I can’t find that info for Massey for the comparison but it will probably be in their next annual report.

    There are probably several folks that want to find negatives on Massey’s safety performance but they really have exceptional safety programs and safety ethic.

  10. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    First, two questions: Where did you get those statistics (link, please). And, do they include contractors working on Massey mine sites?

    Second, I doubt your statistics offer much comfort to the families of Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield. And it’s important to note that the $4.2 million total in criminal and civil penalties paid by Aracoma Coal for the January 2006 fire is the largest penalty ever paid by a mining company in the U.S. for a death case. I’m not sure how you in your mind reconcile that kind of criminal conduct (they pleaded guilty to criminal violations) with your view that they have a great safety ethic.

    And Aracoma was hardly the first time Massey’s safety “ethic” was questions … in the five years prior to Aracoma, at least 11 workers died at Massey mines. And in each instance, the company was cited for violations that MSHA concluded contributed to the deaths.

    Aracoma wasn’t the last, either …

    — On Feb. 1, 2006, Paul Moss was killed,

    — Dec. 4, 2007, David J. Neal was killed,

    — May 16, 2008, Nathan Dove was killed, … That happened at the Aracoma Mine under the same foreman who recently pleaded guilty to criminal safety violations stemming from the January 2006 fire,

    — Sept. 19, 2008, James O. Woods was killed,

    — Feb. 6, 2009, William D. Wade was killed,

    And regarding surface mining … while it is certainly true that the death and injury rate for surface mines is far better than underground mines, surface mining in Appalachia is a very, very dangerous job … you can ask the families of Massey workers Rodney Sheets and William Birchfield about that,

    Or the family of Massey worker Kevin Lupardous,


  11. Casey says:

    I agree statistics certainly would be no comfort to grieving families. I don’t know if contractors working on Massey ID’s are included in their NFDL rate.

    But these safety metrics provide an overall view of safety performance as it relates to the extremely important goal of sending workers home uninjured in an industry with many potential hazards.

    The goal for Massey is the same as Consol and others and that is to have no injuries. But to perform substantially better than the industry average is something for a company to be proud. The necessary programs and management to achieve this takes the efforts of many but without senior management initiatives, support and attention, safety focus does not occur.

    Certainly even in companies with exceptional programs and safety ethic, failures can occur. To only point out failures and ignore and downplay the many more successes, as represented in Massey’s 2009 NFDL rate, is a distortion of the whole picture.

  12. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Criminal prosecutions of mine operators for safety violations don’t exactly occur everyday.

    What would you say a criminal prosecution — and a guilty plea to 10 charges, including one felony — not to mention the largest safety penalty in U.S. history … what do you think that says about a company’s safety ethic?

    By the way, Massey now has the largest mine safety fine and the largest clean water act fine ever in the U.S.

    What, in your view, does that say about its ethics?


  13. Casey says:

    What it says to me is that Massey had a complete failure of their safety programs in this instance and that this failure does not totally reflect on upper management’s safety ethic, but it does reflect on their overall safety performance. I have theories on how this can happen but I do not care to discuss them here.

    All that I’m trying to do is point to the positives that are being ignored when only reporting the negatives has the effect of distorting the overall truth. Our experiences, knowledge, education and perspectives are different so we certainly can have different opinions.

    What does an NFDL rate that is better than the industry for six consecutive years represent to you?

  14. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Certainly … folks can have different perspectives. That’s why we have the comments section…

    You mentioned this “instance” and I assume you mean Aracoma … but if you look at all of those other deaths I listed (and those are just post-Aracoma), you’ll see a pattern of violating safety standards leading to deaths of workers. Aracoma was hardly an isolated instance.

    But to your question … that NFDL rate doesn’t mean anything to me, because I don’t know what was included and what wasn’t. It sounds good, but the devil is in the details as they say. If you can provide the data and calculations to show what was and wasn’t included, I could develop a better answer.

    I would say that, it sounds like you get your information on Massey’s safety record from the company’s corporate annual report. My guess is that analyzing raw data from the government would be a better source.


  15. Casey says:

    In this case the government’s raw data is provided by each coal company for each MSHA ID by way of lost time injuries, fatalities, man hours, etc. It’s similar to the self reporting on DMR’s of water quality data which you have reported on before. I’m guessing someone at Massey could answer any questions that you have.

    Assuming the incident rate reported is accurate, what does an NFDL rate that is better than the industry for six consecutive years represent to you?

    Here’s the link

  16. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I’m certainly familiar with Part 50 data. But, Massey does not explain what it does and doesn’t include in calculating its number – does it include only operator figures? contractors? In the case of Massey, it could make a huge difference.

    But, to answer your question: If the number is accurate, it means what it sounds like — that their non-fatal, lost-day injury rate is better than the national average over that period of time.

    At the same time, during that same period, one of their subsidiaries pleaded guilty to criminal violations in the Aracoma case, another one pleaded guilty in the White Buck case, and several foreman have pleaded guilty in those two cases. And, quite a few workers at Massey mines have died.

    Surely you are not justifying their criminal violations or defending such actions, are you?

    I believe Brett Harvey at CONSOL has said the coal industry’s goal should be zero injuries and zero fatalities. Shouldn’t it also be zero criminal violations?


  17. Casey says:

    You have often “forced” me to answer tough questions in the past so I tried the same on you. But again I asked what it represents not what it is. Ever see that commercial where the guy struggles to say the love word back at his girlfriend but has no trouble telling the waitress that he’d love a Bud Light?

    To answer yours: no I don’t defend such actions in any way. Yes there should not be any criminal violations.

  18. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I have indeed seen that commercial … and I appreciate your questioning.

    And honestly, I’m not trying to dodge your question. I do hesitate to discuss numbers and data when I don’t know exactly how they were calculated. To me in this case, I don’t know what mines under Massey control were used to develop their numbers, and I don’t know if they included contractors. Those factors could greatly change what I think those numbers represent.

    With that caveat, let me try again:

    Those numbers represent a non-fatal, lost-day injury rate performance that is better than the national average, but that performance is at odds with other evidence — criminal prosecutions, deaths caused by violations, etc. — that indicates much more of a focus on safety is needed.

    You might not agree…but I think that’s my answer.


  19. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    A news release perhaps of interest … issued today. Ken.

    Charleston, WV — Massey Energy (NYSE: MEE) today announced that two of its subsidiaries have received the Mountaineer Guardian Award from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training and the West Virginia Coal Association.

    Aracoma’s Hernshaw Mine and Alex Energy’s North Surface Mine received the Mountaineer Guardian Award at the annual West Virginia Mining Symposium on February 4, 2010 in Charleston.

    The two Massey subsidiaries were nominated by state mine inspectors and the West Virginia Coal Association for their outstanding safety performances in 2009.

    The Aracoma Hernshaw mine, located in Logan County, has been recognized by both state and federal agencies over the past three years as a safety leader in the industry. Aracoma Hernshaw members worked more than 63,000 exposure hours and reported no lost time injuries during 2009. This is the second consecutive year that the Aracoma Hernshaw mine has earned the award.

    Similarly, members at Alex Energy’s North Surface Mine worked more than 34,000 exposure hours last year without incurring a lost time injury.

    “Every Massey member is intensely focused on working safely,” said Massey Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship. “We recognize the outstanding commitment to working safely exemplified by our members at Aracoma and Alex Energy, and I congratulate them on receiving this honor.”

    The Mountaineer Guardian Award was established in 1983 and is presented annually to West Virginia mining companies that demonstrate safety excellence.

    Massey Energy Company, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, with operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, is the largest coal company in Central Appalachia and is included in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

  20. Casey says:

    Thanks you.

  21. […] Today in his Charleston Gazette blog, Ken Ward Jr. questioned Maynard’s dedication to mine worker safety.  Ward’s skepticism of Maynard’s concern for mine worker safety was fueled by a series of emails between Maynard and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship regarding the Aracoma Mine fire. […]

  22. […] the political situation for Rahall certainly hasn’t gotten much better. He now has top Friend-of-Don-Blankenship Spike Maynard running for his seat, and Maynard is making this nonsense about Washington’s “War on […]

  23. […] political world is focused on the death of legendary Sen. Robert C. Byrd … but for Republican Congressional candidate Spike Maynard, every day is about bashing efforts by federal regulators to curb damage caused by the coal […]

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