Massey Energy begins full-court press in wake of worst mining disaster in 40 years

April 26, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

Mine Explosion Massey Management

Massey Energy Co. Chairman and CEO, Don Blankenship, second from right, attends a press conference with board directors, from left, Robert Foglesong, Bobby Inman, and Stanley Suboleski, Monday, April 26, 2010 at in Charleston, W.Va. Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 workers, the mine’s owner said Monday. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and three of the company’s board members had a press conference this morning in Charleston. Just a day after the memorial ceremony for the Upper Big Branch miners, Massey is launching a full-court press defense of itself.

The bulk of their comments were included in a letter “To Whom it May Concern” that was distributed by Massey’s PR firm to reporters and others just before the press conference, held over at the Charleston Civic Center.

Among the major points:

A summary of the “benefits” Massey is offering to families, without the families having to settle any legal claims against the company. Those benefits include life insurance equal to five times the miners’ annual pay, 20 years of health benefits for surviving spouses, health benefits for surviving children until at least age 19, and a four-year scholarship to any West Virginia college, university or vocational school. Massey also said it will pay surviving spouses the monthly difference between the miners’ base pay and the workers’ compensation benefits the spouse would normally receive.

A defense of the Upper Big Branch Mine’s safety record, which argues that the mine had “about an average number of violations in 2009-2010” though concedes it had “a very large number” of more serious enforcement orders. Massey said it brought in a team to try to fix problems, and that the number of serious enforcement actions dropped by 80 percent between Nov. 1, 2009, and April 1, 2010. “Just days before the explosion, federal mine inspectors commented favorably on conditions in the mine,” the company said.

Mine Explosion-Massey Management

Massey Energy Co. Chairman and CEO, Don Blankenship, second from right, attends a press conference with board directors, from left, Robert Foglesong, Bobby Inman, and Stanley Suboleski, Monday, April 26, 2010 at in Charleston, W.Va. Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 workers, the mine’s owner said Monday. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Restating Massey’s view that, “Serious accidents that lead to loss of life in any industry often are typically not the result of one, easily identifiable cause … Instead, they usually result from a complex interplay of contributing forces. Separating those strands of forces can take time and intense, expert study. That is why it is so important that for this accident, as for others, there be no rush to judgment about its cause.”

(During the question-and-answer session, I pressed Massey board member Bobby R. Inman about how he reconciled his view that the idea that Massey puts production ahead of safety is a “big lie” with the guilty plea by Aracoma Coal Co. to criminal mine safety violations that led to the deaths of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield in January 2006. Inman responded that the guilty plea and the violations that led to those deaths “had nothing to do with profit … profit had nothing to do with the Aracoma fire.” Later, Inman also took issue with comments by MSHA and other mine safety experts that all coal-mine explosions are preventable, saying, “All accidents are preventable if you shut down production. Mining is — there is no way around it — is a dangerous business.”)

— Local radio personality Mike Agnello gave Massey a chance to blame the explosion — as Fox News has tried to do — on “seismic activity”  far from the mine site in the days prior to the explosion … and even Massey didn’t try to make this leap. Company officials said they might be able to “make a convoluted case” for that, but would “tend to dismiss” the theory.

— Most interestingly, Massey’s open letter had this to say about MSHA:

It is important to note that the longwall at UBB was not operating with the same ventilation system that it began with in September 2009. MSHA required us to change that system and we complied. Recognizing that professionals can reasonably disagree on the best method of ventilation at a mine, we have discovered the following: 1. that MSHA required several changes since that date that made the ventilation in this area more complex; 2. that the volume of fresh air to the face was significantly reduced during this period; and 3. that our engineers resisted making the changes, in one instance to the point of shutting down production for two days, before agreeing to MSHA’s ventilation plan changes.

Massey officials were quick to add that they aren’t suggesting MSHA is at fault, or that any of these ventilation changes caused the explosion … and during the open press conference, company officials declined to provide any more specifics about the ventilation changes.

Later, Massey board member Stan Suboleski told me there were three types of ventilation changes pushed by MSHA:

— The longwall started out using “belt air” — where a conveyor belt tunnel is used to bring fresh air into the working section — but MSHA retracted its approval for that.

— MSHA put restrictions on how far air from outside could travel when it left the longwall tailgate.

— Agency officials told Massey they could not have air from continuous mining sections returning in one of the longwall gates unless the company traveled the area in its entirety to check for problems.

Now, it’s hard to understand much of that without discussing it while looking at a mine map (which we didn’ t have when I spoke with Suboleski), and I’ve boiled down what he said quite a bit to try to make it a little bit clear.

In his initial remarks at the press conference, Suboleski said that pre-shift examinations the day of the explosion showed no explosive levels of methane and no other hazards to miner health or safety:

There was no evidence of a dangerous condition.

I’m mystified at what occurred at the mine on April 5. Something very unexpected happened at Upper Big Branch.

12 Responses to “Massey Energy begins full-court press in wake of worst mining disaster in 40 years”

  1. Monty says:

    Yeah, something “very unexpected” happened. That’s a prize understatement by Suboleski.

  2. Joseph Rice says:

    “Air samples did not show high levels of explosive gases just before an explosion in Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 workers, the mine’s owner said Monday”

    Then what exploded? Seems they are starting their Criminal/civil defense already. So the explosion was MSHA’s fault. these people are not helping their public image at all. Maybe all Massey energy mines should be shut down. Maybe the mines should be confiscated and turned over to a company that will run the mines as safely as possible.

  3. Vernon says:

    Suboleski is “mystified.” Already hinting at supernatural forces at work, beyond Massey’s control. The explosion may have been “unexpected” to Massey, but not to the people in the community who wonder when and not if Massey will provide disaster. Meanwhile their other operations continue with violations unabated, so we still expect another disaster.

  4. Miners Wife says:

    My husband works for Massey Energy, at worked at the UBB mine. When he would work at the face and be required to wear a dust pump he was instructed to stand in the outtake when he was supposed to be closer. He tells me that is why the dust levels would read lower.

  5. Don says:

    If the miners ran the mines, I doubt there would be any questions of whether safety or profit was more important.

  6. I don’t usually comment, but I have to ask the obvious question: why on Earth was Mike Agnello there?

  7. bugman160 says:

    Because Mike Agnello knows everything. He is from the mean streets of Chicago and has intimate experience with seismic activity and coal mining.

  8. Phyllis says:

    I wonder about this magical sample. The foreman had called the fireboss back into the mine. Why?? And how did they know what the foreman’s sample showed, when he was killed in the explosion. Kinda makes ya wonder, doesn’t it?

  9. clay ton says:

    re: “Massey Energy begins full-court press in wake of worst mining disaster in 40 years”

    The mother of one of the miners killed, 25 year old Josh Napper told reporters that her son “knew what was going to happen.” Pam Napper said that her son was concerned about the safety at the mine and especially with its ventilation problems. He left a letter for his girlfriend and young daughter before he went to the mine for the last time April 5th

    Massey board member Stan Suboleski stated, “From January 1 to April 4, 2010 there were zero lost-time accidents at Upper Big Branch. In fact, MSHA had its quarterly close-out meeting with UBB management a few days prior to the explosion, and determined that there were no major issues and the mine was in “good condition.”

    “The big truth is that 52 people have been killed on Massey property since 2000…” Add ongoing injuries and the silent killer black lung, topics are not discussed; they don’t have breaking news drama.

    There are discrepancies in the actual conditions at UBB; to date the public information presents a far different picture of Massey’s UBB operation than Massey’s portrayal.

    Did anyone expect Massey Energy and Don Blankenship to accept responsibility? We know when charged, an offender usually says ‘not guilty your honor’. Don Blankenship and the Massey board are not about to ‘roll over’. Like Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs, I am certain that Don Blankenship and the board of Massey Energy think they are doing ‘God’s work’. After all, the country would grind to a halt if ‘our’ coal stops being dug out of ‘our’ ground.

    Today, the issues are: the respect and validity of workplace laws for the mineworkers, how these laws might be abrogated by politically appointed individuals, corporate responsibility in 21st century America and our nations willingness to address the specific needs of industrial workers working under the harshest conditions in an industry that is vital to the life and blood of the country. Caveats and dangers in mining are well established, some companies are proactive and incorporate the latest technologies for worker, property and equity safety, others might gamble.

    Mine safety is a three-legged stool, the miner, the company and the oversight. When one fails the stool falls over.

    Coal in America is an oligopoly, a few major players in a supply chain of a critical fuel the country must have. The nation cannot open up for business tomorrow without coal. The old American Telephone and Telegraph was a monopoly, it was broken up in 1984; there was one phone company coast to coast with little incentive for innovation. Twelve years later, the US government realized the five ‘baby bells’ were strangling telecommunications competition and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 tried and failed to break the ‘last mile lock’ the five regional phone companies still enjoy. Their only real completion is the single cable company passing your door or a cellular carrier. To the anguish of many, America benefited greatly by taking away the monopolistic Bell System.

    The flawed Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed the creation of too many competitors (Competitive Local Exchange Carrier’s (CLEC’s)). Investment bankers sold big ideas to the investment community and billions of dollars were lost on false assumptions. “The formation of these CLECs, with easy financing from equipment vendors and IPOs, was a significant contributor to the “telecom bubble” of the late 1990s which then turned into the “bust” of 2001-2002.” wikipedia

    The ‘ownership’ of the disaster at UBB on 4/5/10 will be another long fight, lawyers on both sides will be the winners, the ability to hire the best lawyers and PR firms goes to the deepest pockets (big coal). Meanwhile without acknowledging and rethinking the coal industry from the bottom up, little will change for those who will continue to risk their lives to support themselves and their families.

    We need a published national strategy for coal, similar to DOD, NASA, maybe a fifty-year plan. The nation can help level the playing field in the health and welfare of mine workers. American coal is a necessity; the people who mine it are a necessity. The plight of West Virginia and the Appalachian coal regions need to improve and that can only happen when the value of their contribution to the welfare of the nation is fully acknowledged.

    Don Blankenship told the UBB miners he would shut the mine if they voted in the union. Clearly he was bluffing as UBB delivered some of Massey’s highest earnings since his threat.

    American has to stop dodging coal, we need it but it’s a poison, and we must reduce its negative effects. Creating safer workplace environments and exploiting mine methane should be immediate and addressable goals.

    If you get pulled over in your semi for doing 100 in a 30, it might cost you your driver’s license. If you wreck your semi driving 100 in a 30 and kill 29 road workers you…

  10. […] evening, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued the following response to allegations by Massey Energy that MSHA-ordered ventilation plan changes reduced the amount of fresh air flowing into the Upper […]

  11. BOUTTIME says:


    Getting little off track, but recently someone was asking about coal mining “disaster” classification by number of fatalities.. From 1884 to 1961, disaster = five or more fatalities per accident — from 1961 to date accidents with three or more fatalities = disaster. For more info and complete disaster roster see

  12. […] you thought you’d seen the last of Massey Energy’s finger pointing at MSHA in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, think again […]

Leave a Reply