Coal Tattoo

It was an interesting juxtaposition in today’s Gazette …

First, there on page 1A, we had this story from Tim Huber over at The Associated Press:

Investors cheered the abrupt retirement of Massey Energy Co.’s chief executive Monday.

Massey’s shares outpaced most major U.S. coal stocks, before backing off to close up $1.21, or 2.4 percent, at $51.63.

The troubled Richmond, Va.-based coal company announced Friday that longtime chief Don Blankenship intends to retire Dec. 31, giving investors a full weekend to ponder the news.

“It may increase the chances that Massey could be merged or acquired,” said Michael Dudas, an analyst with Jefferies & Company. “Now they’re moving on with an acquisition. The stock has reacted very favorably.”

Then, if you turn the page to 2A of this morning’s paper, my coworker Zac Taylor has a report from an unusual press conference where the folks from the Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department discussed the death of their friend Charlie Qualls, who died Saturday in a coal-haulage accident at one of Massey’s mountaintop removal mines:

Yesterday’s post about Qualls’ death drew quite a reaction from a few readers, including some his friends. But I wanted to be sure that Coal Tattoo readers saw some of the comments from people who knew Mr. Qualls best.

Fire department chief Marty Blankenship, for example, said:

He was just a barrel of joy.  He was just as big as a damn truck, but he had heart.

Mr. Qualls’ wife of 13 years, Judith, said:

He was the most loving husband and father that I think anyone could be. He was everything to us, he really was.

Mr. Qualls was just 32. He also leaves behind three boys, ages 13, 9, and 5.

So why are these two contrasting stories interesting?

Well, as several Coal Tattoo readers who knew Mr. Qualls said yesterday, his death is a tremendous loss for his family, friends and coworkers.  By all accounts, he was a good man and a good worker who put safety first for himself and tried to pass on that philosophy to his fellow miners and truck drivers. And I can only imagine the pain of not only his wife, but especially his three boys. My thoughts and prayers are with them.

Mrs. Qualls said at yesterday’s press conference that her husband’s crash was just “a freak accident” and that she does not believe that either Medford or Massey was at fault.

I certainly respect her views on this, as we all should. She has more of a right to speak about this than any of us. But for mine safety advocates, it’s always important to look beyond thinking that a death was caused by a “freak accident” that couldn’t have been avoided. It’s important to try to learn from every injury and death, to try to help save the next family such terrible pain and loss.

Coal truck accidents over the years are most frequently linked to poor maintenance of the vehicles by mine operators and their contract companies.  MSHA has suggested a variety of other steps that can be taken to avoid such needless deaths — from carefully designing coal-haul roads to always wearing a seat belt.

Are these sorts of things as important to the industry — and to company stockholders — as this quarter’s production figures and profits? We would all like to think so.

But every quarter,  when coal company executives are quizzed by industry analysts who recommend stock purchases and sales, control institutional investments in these companies and — in some ways — really run the coal industry, I seldom hear questions about mine safety. If it comes up, it is usually in the context of trying to keep production up in the face of increased regulatory scrutiny or something like that.

Since Upper Big Branch, one thing that might help change that is the new requirement that mine operators and corporate parents that are publicly traded file SEC disclosures that detail significant safety problems at their mines and provide data about violations cited at those mines.

This requirement is already calling more attention to mine safety issues, as the AP and other news organizations are routinely writing up short news items whenever companies file one of these SEC disclosures.

Did pressure from Upper Big Branch and Massey’s checked safety record bring about Don Blankenship’s departure as the company’s CEO? We may never know for sure. But perhaps these new SEC filings will prompt everyone who runs and works in the coal industry to take just a little more effort to ensure no other family has to go through what the Qualls are going through now.