We broke a story in the Sunday Gazette-Mail about how a worker at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch somehow managed to use a forged foreman’s license for nearly two years — and conduct more than 220 safety examinations at the mine between January 2008 and August 2009.
And we’re also posting the audio of the hearing in which Harrah testifies about his actions:
It’s worth remembering that this is not the first story to come out about questions about mine foremen at Upper Big Branch. We published a story in late September about three Upper Big Branch mine managers who were cited individually by state inspectors for alleged safety violations.
Just eight months after the nation was shocked by the death of 29 coal miners in the Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia, Republicans have once again pandered to industry and blocked passage of an urgently needed mine safety reform.
… Republicans predictably shielded mine owners, citing warnings from the National Association of Manufacturers that the reform might drive up coal prices by expanding government authority and exposing mining companies to greater criminal penalties and damage litigation. That is exactly what this perilously dangerous industry needs. Too many lives have already been lost for the sake of cheap coal.
The failure was even more egregious in the Senate, where strong reform proposals never saw the heat of debate as the Republican minority wielded its brute dogma of filibustering.
… We fear reform is even less likely in the new Congress where pro-industry Republicans will have greater power. This year they warned against a “rush to judgment” about what precisely happened at Upper Big Branch. We know what happened, 29 people died. And Congress failed in its duty.
We’ve just confirmed that retiring Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship no longer plans to appear next week to be questioned by state and federal investigators who are looking into the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
C.A. Phillips, acting director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, said his agency was informed just a little while ago that Blankenship would invoke his 5th Amendment rights and not answer questions from the investigation team.
UPDATED: Here’s a copy of a letter from Blankenship’s attorney to the state Office of Miners Health Safety and Training.
— An increase of $5.3 million for the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which will enable the agency to hire an additional ten administrative law judges to hear cases. The backlog of cases at the Review Commission – now approximately 19,000, has given incentives for mine operators to abuse this appeals process because it can delay steeper penalties for repeat violators and evade pattern of violations sanctions.
— An additional $24 million for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, $15 million to support backlog reduction.
We’ve had several posts and extended discussion about last weekend’s accident that took the life of coal miner/trucker Charlie Qualls at Massey Energy’s Republic Mine (see here and here). So I thought readers might be interested in the obituary notice that the family ran in today’s Gazette:
Charlie “Big Sexy” Qualls, 32, of Glasgow entered the heavenly gates on December 4, 2010.
He was preceded in death by his grandparents; sister, Michelle McKinne; and uncle, Edward Qualls.
He is survived by his loving wife of thirteen years, Judith; sons and lights of his life, Colin, 13, Matthew, 9, and Dylan, 5; father, Charles “Big Charlie” Qualls (Diana); mother, Nancy Lewis (Jimmy Hudnall); brother, David Mullins (Brenda); sisters, Natalie Hall (Ryan) and Holly Mullins; and several aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews.
Big Sexy graduated from Dupont High School in 1997. He was a member of the Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department for sixteen years. He was also a member of the Charleston Moose Lodge.
Big Sexy was a truck driver for ten years. Although he had driven in various fields of the trucking industry, being “an ol’ coal hauler” was who he was and what he loved doing best.
A fireman’s funeral will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday, December 11, 2010 at Riverside High School with Pastors Mike Lewis and Danny Moore officiating. Burial will follow the service at Kanawha Valley Memorial Gardens, Glasgow. Friends may call from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, December 10, 2010 at Riverside High School.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to his family in care of the Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department.
Condolences may be sent to the family via www.cookefuneralhome.com.
Cooke Funeral Home, Cedar Grove is in charge of the arrangements.
The vote was 214 to 193, with 26 members not voting, well short of the two-thirds needed for the rules suspension.
According to the official roll call vote, only one Republican voted to bring up the bill. West Virginia Democrat Nick Rahall voted in favor, while Republican Shelley Moore Capito voted against. Democrat Alan Mollohan, who lost his re-election bid, did not vote.
Capito voted against this just two days after her office issued a statement commemorating “National Miners Day,” an occasion she used to attack the Obama administration’s efforts to crack down on mountaintop removal mining:
Recently, the mining industry has been under attack by the Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Policies like cap-and-trade directly threaten the livelihood of the coal industry, while the EPA’s decision to stall and even repeal approved mining permits throughout Appalachia has led to a slow bleed of jobs in our state.
The legislation is listed on this House floor schedule issued by the office of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and one story making the rounds is that a substitute bill will be offered on the floor that strips out OSHA language to make it strictly a mine safety bill.
Already, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers are warning lawmakers that they would consider votes on this bill for inclusion in their congressional report cards, and are calling on lawmakers to oppose not only the bill but any procedural efforts to bring it to a vote in the first place.
UPDATED: Here’s a summary of the legislation that is expected to be voted on today.
But behind the scenes, there’s a bit of a nasty argument going on over Margaret Miller, an administrative law judge who has been handling federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission cases stemming from the April 5 disaster that killed 29 of Massey’s workers.
And in the most recent salvo, lawyers for Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. — including Kanawha County Commissioner Dave Hardy — go so far as to say MSHA attorneys are “blaming the victim,” which in this instance, is apparently Massey, for “defending itself against unprecedented attempts by the government to control Performance’s own mine.”
— $12 million, in two payments — one of $2 million this Dec. 31 and another of $10 million on July 1, 2011.
— Health-care coverage for two years.
— This clause regarding secretarial help and office space:
… Secretarial assistance in the form of a single secretary, who will be available to perform reasonable administrative and clerical tasks (but will not be permitted to perform any services related to any business or activities that are competitive with the Company or its subsidiaries or affiliates) and continued use of Mr. Blankenship’s office and standard office equipment at Lauren Land Company during the Consulting Period (as defined below), and, in the Company’s sole discretion, during the three subsequent calendar years.
— Blankenship will continue to consult for Massey for two years, and will not compete with Massey nor hire away Massey employees for that same period of time. He will be paid a $5,000 per month retainer as a consultant.
Here’s the early report from the AP, whose Tim Huber attended the hearing held at the MSHA Academy outside Beckley:
The West Virginia Coal Association wants federal regulators to rewrite proposed regulations that would place stricter limits on coal dust exposure.
Lobbyist Chris Hamilton told a regulatory panel Tuesday the changes would cost far more than expected and are based on unproven science, among other things.
Others addressing the Mine Safety and Health Administration panel urged adoption of the changes as a step toward eradicating black lung disease, which is caused by inhaling dust.
The hearing at MSHA’s mine academy in Beaver is the first of seven planned across the country.
The proposal would cut by half existing limits for breathable dust in coal mines, among other things. The disease has plagued miners for generations and is blamed for more than 10,000 deaths in the past decade.
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.
Whether true or not, the general consensus out there is that the late Friday announcement is a clear sign that Massey is headed for some sort of sale or merger. Check out the reports from The Wall Street Journal (also here), Bloomberg, The New York Times, and NPR. A follow-up Associated Press story focused on whether Blankenship will still show up to testify next week in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster investigation, but the more interesting part of the story were comments from Mike Chapman, whose uncle died at Upper Big Branch and whose brother works at a Massey surface mine:
Mike Chapman, whose uncle Kenny Chapman died in the Upper Big Branch explosion, said he hated to see Blankenship leave.
“I think he’s good for the coal business,” said Chapman, whose brother works at a Massey surface mine. “He’s a very, very smart man when it comes to the coal business.”
Chapman said he wondered if Blankenship’s sudden departure had to do with talk of attempts to sell Massey.
“Massey might do better without Don,” Chapman said. “Then again, Don has made that company what it is today.”
In an uncertain economy, Blankenship is certain that coal will continue to see West Virginia through. He says Massey is stronger today than it’s ever been.
“The most important thing in the coal business to job security is coal reserves, and Massey has more of them than anybody else in this part of the world. And that’s been the objective for 20 years and I think their job is more secure than most anybody,” he says.
When it comes to regulating coal mines, Blankenship says the biggest thing the government needs is competence.
“They’re just incompetent, they don’t know what they’re doing. They have political motives. We really need some sort of independent review of safety in the coal mines and environmental issues, and come out with what the truth is, as opposed to what’s political or popular,” he says.
Here’s the summary that MSHA released on Sunday afternoon about this weekend’s death:
At about 5:35 pm Saturday evening, the driver of an over-the-road coal truck was killed in a powered haulage accident. The runaway truck overturned on the haul road, and the driver was extricated from the cab by the local fire department. Federal Investigators indicated that faulty brakes may have played a role, as well as icy road conditions.
A 103j Order was issued via phone by District 4 and two inspectors were dispatched to the site to begin an investigation.
UPDATED: MSHA has released this preliminary report, which identifies the miner who died as 32-year-old-Charles Qualls.
The Board of Directors of Massey Energy Company (NYSE: MEE) today announced that its Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Don Blankenship, will retire from the company effective December 30, 2010. Mr. Blankenship has led Massey Energy as Chairman and CEO since 2000, and he’s been with the company since 1982.
Baxter F. Phillips Jr., President of Massey Energy, will succeed Mr. Blankenship as Chief Executive Officer. Mr. Phillips has been with Massey Energy since 1981. Admiral Bobby Inman, Lead Independent Director on the Massey Board, will succeed Mr. Blankenship as Non-Executive Chairman. He has been a Director since 1985.
In a statement, Mr. Blankenship said: “After almost three decades at Massey it is time for me to move on. Baxter and I have worked together for 28 years and he will provide the company great executive leadership. Most of all, I want to thank the Members of Massey Energy whose hard work supports not only their own families, but also contributes greatly to the entire community of Central Appalachia.”
Mr. Phillips said: “I want to thank Don for all he has done to build Massey Energy. I also want to thank the Board for giving me the opportunity to succeed him as CEO. This is a strong and successful coal company, and I will work hard to match and surpass its record of success.”
Admiral Inman said: “I am deeply grateful to Don for the decisive leadership he has provided to Massey and we appreciate his success in building this company. We all wish him even greater success in the future.”
Mr. Blankenship served as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer since November 30, 2000. He also concurrently held the title of President from November 30, 2000 until November 10, 2008. He has been Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of A.T. Massey Coal Company, Inc., our wholly owned and sole, direct operating subsidiary, since 1992. Mr. Blankenship was formerly President and Chief Operating Officer from 1990 to 1991 and President of our subsidiary, Massey Coal Services, Inc., from 1989 to 1991. He joined our subsidiary, Rawl Sales & Processing Co., in 1982.
Over the past 10 years since Massey became a public company, Mr. Blankenship has driven the growth of what is now Massey Energy from 3,662 Members (employees) in 2000 to over 7,300 today. In addition, the market capitalization of the company has risen from about $758 million in 2000 to about $5 billion today, while annual revenue has risen from about $1.08 billion in 2000 to $2.7 billion in 2009.
Mr. Phillips was elected President of Massey Energy Company effective November 10, 2008. He previously served as Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer from November 2004 to November 2008, as Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer from September 2003 to November 2004 and as Vice President and Treasurer from 2000 to August 2003. Mr. Phillips joined Massey in 1981 and has also served as Corporate Treasurer, Manager of Export Sales and Corporate Human Resources Manager, as well as other roles.
Admiral Inman has been a director since 1985 and served as Lead Independent Director since 2007. Admiral Inman has been a tenured professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin since August 2001, holding the Lyndon Johnson Centennial Chair in National Policy. He is a managing director of Gefinor Ventures, Inc. and Limestone Ventures, Inc., both early stage venture capital firms, and has over 20 years of experience in venture capital investments. Admiral Inman previously served on numerous publicly traded companies and other boards of directors.
Massey Energy Company, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, with operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia and is included in the S&P 500 Index.
THE bright lights of Sydney’s central business district will be powered by rotting agricultural waste and sewage harvested from a 250-kilometre radius around the city, under a new plan to move away from coal-fired energy.
The city’s master plan relies on 27 existing or proposed trigeneration plants, mainly concealed in the basements of public buildings and city offices, to free the city of its dependence on the Hunter Valley coal that accounts for 80 per cent of central Sydney’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The gas-driven trigeneration plants would convert plant matter to biogas, helping to cut the city’s carbon emissions by 70 per cent by the middle of the century.
Meeting the target would put Sydney at the forefront of global cities converting from high to low carbon energy.
A scorching summer that killed thousands in Russia and exceptionally mild winters in the Arctic were among extreme weather events that have put 2010 on track to be one of the three hottest years on record, U.N. experts said Thursday.
The data from the World Meteorological Organization show that the last decade was the warmest ever, part of a trend that scientists attribute to man-made pollution trapping heat in the atmosphere.
Europeans and some Americans may think it was chilly this year, but their unusually cold winters were more than balanced by searing temperatures from Canada to Africa and the Indian subcontinent, said Michel Jarraud, WMO’s secretary-general.
And over on Climate Progress, Joseph Romm posted this story from the Center for American Progress’ Andrew Light:
As with last year’s climate summit, however, I’ll be ready to blame the process rather than particular parties in the even that nothing emerges from this meeting other than an agreement to meet again next year. The UNFCCC is notoriously difficult, making the U.S. Senate’s sixty vote threshold for action enviable. Political and legal agreements emerging from this forum require consensus so all 194 parties have a veto. Failure to make any gains this year will only increase calls for more climate action in smaller forums, like the G20 or the U.S. led Major Economies Forum. The result might mean a better chance at coming to an agreement but in doing so we will inherit an equally difficult problem: how to adequately represent the interests of the entire world into a process that won’t have all parties around the table. Let’s hope that the negotiators will act in good faith to avoid such a predicament.
Despite its claim that its safety record was “average,” no U.S. coal company had a worse fatality record than Massey Energy Co., even before an explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 on April 5, according to an analysis by the Investigative Reporting Workshop.
Massey, the largest coal company in central Appalachia, has come under heightened scrutiny in the six months since the disaster, the deadliest mining accident in nearly 40 years. But the company’s claims that it had a typical fatality rate before the accident had not been fully examined prior to the Workshop investigation, in part because the government’s Mine Safety and Health Administration does not regularly list in fatality reports the companies that control the mines.
The government has a set policy for listing smaller companies that oversee everyday operations at mines, so-called “operators.” But controlling companies such as Massey — defined by the government as companies “controlling the coal, particularly the sale of the coal” — are not typically named, although controllers often set safety standards and claim credit when awards are given for good safety histories.
The Workshop analyzed government data that it requested from the mine safety agency, and found that no company other than Massey was responsible for more miner deaths from 2000 to 2009, even though Massey was only the sixth-largest coal producer in the United States last year, according to government statistics. Both Massey and CONSOL Energy Inc. had 23 fatalities during those 10 years. But CONSOL produced more coal, giving Massey a much poorer ratio of deaths-to-production. Including this year’s fatalities, 54 workers have been killed at Massey mines since 2000, dozens more than those of any other company. The total includes the 23 before the accident, 29 from the explosion and two since.
The report included this chart of top coal producers and their safety records.
Well, MSHA made clear in a statement issued after a status conference with U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar in the Freedom Energy case that the agency plans to pursue an injunction there, regardless of the closure of the mine:
Massey’s announcement today about Freedom Energy does not render DOL’s injunctive relief case moot. We will continue to seek a court order to ensure that miners who continue to work in any capacity at Freedom are safe.
Keep in mine what Massey said about idling production, but continuing to have workers at Freedom to handle the process of moving equipment and closing the mine:
Even though Massey continues to believe the mine is safe, it has been mined for several decades and has extensive underground works that present particular challenges to maintain. As a result, Massey has decided to reassign the resources from this mine to other Company facilities. The miners at Freedom Energy are either being moved to other Massey locations or will remain at Freedom to recover equipment and materials.
Thanks to Coal Tattoo reader Bob Mooney for pointing out that the latest U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement evaluation of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s mining division is out and finally available to the public.
Every year, I spent a fair amount of time going through this report, catching up on what issues are being examined by OSMRE, looking for story ideas and generally educating myself about the status of various WVDEP issues.
The report also provides a lot of statistics, such as one of my favorites, which compares the amount of acreage under new strip-mining permits to the amount already under permit and the amount reclaimed during the year.
As it usually does, Table 5 of the report (see page 73 of the .pdf file) shows that full reclamation in West Virginia’s coalfields is not keeping up with new area put under permit by coal companies … At the end of June, the state showed 304,591 acres under permit, compared to 301,951 acres at the same time in 2009.
Also, the annual report tips folks off to a many other oversight reports that OSMRE has completed or is working on regarding specific issues. For instance, this one mentions a recently completed report that points out some problems in the way WVDEP allows mine operators to change their permits through what it calls “incidental boundary revisions.” That part of the report found:
… Many of the IBRs in the review were combined with other operational changes, and the IBR acreage limits for surface mines were exceeded making the classification of all the changes subject to question as an IBR.
Last week, Erica Peterson over at West Virginia Public Broadcasting did an interesting story about a move by our friend Chris Hamilton at the West Virginia Coal Association to re-brand mountaintop removal mining as “mountaintop development.” According to Erica:
The coal industry has long pointed to its economic benefit in West Virginia — from mining jobs to development projects on former mine sites. Now, there’s talk of changing mining terminology to reflect some of this economic development.
Last month, Tyler Phipps, a junior at the University of Kentucky submitted a letter to the university’s student newspaper. Phipps pointed to examples of development on former mine sites in Kentucky, and suggested the term “mountaintop development” might be a better way to describe the practice.
Phipps’ phrase appealed to many in the coal industry. Two days later, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association, emailed the story to coal groups, echoing the call of Massey Energy Vice President Mike Snelling that this might be a good way to re-brand the controversial practice.
“It just sort of struck a favorable note among those of us who are more directly involved with the coal industry and surface mining here in West Virginia,” Chris Hamilton said. “All around the state we have many examples today of industrial, commercial or recreational facilities that are on post-mine land sites, former mine sites, where there’s just a tremendous amount of economic development.”
I’ve spent a little bit of time looking at the list, and a few interesting things jumped out at me:
First, about 42 percent of the jobs — nearly 5,600 of them — are seasonal positions, part-time jobs, or temporary construction work. There’s no mention of this in the Commerce Department press release.
Second, two thirds of the 7,739 full-time jobs are at sites nowhere near Southern West Virginia. They’re in Grant, Harrison, Hancock and Monongalia counties. More than a third of the full-time jobs are at one project — the FBI Center near Clarksburg.
This includes sites that have had prior mining activity. This includes sites with a designated post-mine land use in the permit, properties mined prior to 1977 and projects where a permit was not needed due to incidental coal.
So, we’re not at all talking exclusively about large mountaintop removal sites where post-mining development was made possible by provisions of the 1977 Surface Mining Act that required such development for sites with variances to the “approximate original contour” reclamation standard.
Massey Energy is shutting down a Kentucky mine that was targeted by federal regulators for the toughest enforcement action ever, the company confirms to NPR.
The Freedom Energy Mine No. 1 in Pike County was the focus of an unprecedented federal court action in which the Labor Department was seeking to have the court seize control of the mine. Labor Department officials argued that conditions at the facility were so dangerous that a judge’s intervention was required.
Massey Energy lawyers had asked for a 30-day extension — until Dec. 29 — to respond to the government’s lawsuit and the Labor Department’s request for a preliminary injunction.
U.S. District Judge Amul R. Thapar had granted an extension, but scheduled a telephonic conference with the attorneys for 1 p.m. today to discuss new deadlines and scheduling matters in the case.
Also worth noting is that MSHA inspectors have issued at least two serious enforcement orders citing Massey following separate roof falls at the Freedom operation in the month since the government filed its lawsuit.
Massey’s announcement today about Freedom Energy does not render DOL’s injunctive relief case moot. We will continue to seek a court order to ensure that miners who continue to work in any capacity at Freedom are safe.
After a private telephone call with the attorneys yesterday, Judge Thapar issued an order that requires Massey to file any motion to dismiss by Dec. 8, with MSHA’s response due Dec. 14 and any company reply due Dec. 17. A hearing on the motion to dismiss would be held Dec. 17 in Covington, Ky.
Also, the judge scheduled a hearing on MSHA’s motion for a preliminary injunction for Jan. 5 in Pikeville, Ky.