Unsealed documents outline Massey board’s failure to take action to improve safety before disaster

June 2, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

As acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin joined Alpha Natural Resources to celebrate yesterday’s approval of Alpha’s buyout of Massey Energy, new court documents were being unsealed that continue to detail the failings of Massey’s board of directors to ensure the safety of its workers.

We had a first cut at a story about some of these documents, but as I’ve continued to read what’s been made available so far, one theme that jumps out is that Massey’s board did not appear to take seriously a court settlement that required it to take a larger role in the coal giant’s safety practices.

Allegations about the board’s inaction are outlined in this motion for a preliminary injunction filed by a group of Massey shareholders who are seeking to hold Massey’s board and executives responsible for perhaps $1 billion in losses from the April 5, 2010, mine disaster.

Some examples:

— Under the settlement (and subsequent June 2008) court order approving it), Massey’s board was required to hire a “Vice President for Safety Practices,” who would report to a Safety, Environmental Public Policy Committee. The company did hire Elizabeth Chamberlin (right) away from CONSOL Energy and make here a top vice president for safety. But rather than reporting to the special committee, Massey had her reporting directly to then-CEO Don Blankenship.

— That special committee’s chairman, board member James Crawford, only asked for information about the safety compliance reporting system — meant to help the board take a more direct role in managing safety issues at Massey — within the company after the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up.

— At a special board meeting about a month after the mine disaster, board members learned that Blankenship had set up a system, contrary to the court order, through which safety reporting was handled by vice president for operations Chris Adkins and general counsel Shane Harvey, reporting directly to Blankenship. This system wasn’t changed until sometime between August 2010 and November 2010 — months after 29 miners died at Upper Big Branch.

— With regard to mounting safety problems at specific Massey mines, the board took no action at its Tiller Mine, which was suffering from an injury rate more than twice the national average — and 40 percent worse than even Upper Big Branch — and that had received hundreds of citations for violations that could pose an imminent threat to workers.  Board members also took no action in response to the 573 MSHA citations and more than $1.6 million in fines issued to Massey’s Ruby Mine in 2009 alone. And, the board did nothing to resolve safety problems at the Freedom Mine, which prompted MSHA’s first-ever effort to get a federal court injunction to shut down an unsafe mine.

A protester holds a sign behind Massey Energy Company Vice President and General Council Shane Harvey, left, and Massey Energy Company Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship, as they wait to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2010, before the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn KASter)

— Under the court order, Massey was to implement a new system for employees, suppliers, customers and others to confidentially report possible illegal or unethical conduct regarding environmental and safety issues. In particular, this system was to include “a whistleblower hotline with alternative reporting mechanisms.” But, the company never established these alternative reporting mechanisms. And, of course, we know that miners from Upper Big Branch feared that reporting safety problems through the regular lines of management could cost them their jobs.

Finally, the documents detail how then-CEO Don Blankenship put corporate officials who were charged with making sure that Upper Big Branch operated safely before the disaster in charge of investigating what caused the disaster that occurred on their watch … Those officials, in particular, were Chris Adkins and Shane Harvey.

Now, details of these allegations in the court filing are spelled out in previously confidential depositions of Massey officials, including Blankenship, Baxter Phillips,  and  Bobby Inman.

But it’s important to note that, despite Judge King’s order from the bench yesterday, Massey lawyers have not yet provided complete copies of these depositions — and thousands of page of other documents that Judge King ordered unsealed have not yet been released to the public by the circuit clerk’s office here in Kanawha County. Officials there told me yesterday they wanted a written order from the judge before making the records available.

And to make matters more troubling, Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky yesterday issued this order sealing the files in another case against Massey executives by the company’s shareholders.

3 Responses to “Unsealed documents outline Massey board’s failure to take action to improve safety before disaster”

  1. Thomas Rodd says:

    Having read the Governor’s Panel Report on the UBB Disaster more carefully, I offer the following comment:

    The report paints an appalling and overwhelming picture of shoddy and inadequate practices and precautions, and an overall culture of gross deviance from acceptable standards.

    And — from the report it is not at all hard to see how Massey stockholders and executives and board members got generous amounts of money over the years. Their company elevated production over everything else, and did not spend either time or money on safety-related practices that would have significantly hurt their bottom line. The result — greater profitability.

    This conduct made some people rich, and got 29 innocent people killed. The money the rich people got is stained with the blood of innocents.

    It should especially offend anyone to hear that some people who took the Fifth Amendment in the UBB investigation are apparently getting big payouts through stock options, “golden parachutes,” etc., as a result of the merger.

    The people who profited from the appalling conduct outlined in the UBB Report should give those profits to the families of the 29 victims.

  2. Bob Henry Baber says:

    There’s Too Much Blood Smeared On West Virginia Coal-bhb

  3. Money over blood I worked for Massy,on a long wall when ubb exploded I knew what happened because I’ve been there.

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