Coal Tattoo

We were hoping this week that Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield would give us an interview, or at least answer a few questions during the big sign unveiling held to celebrate Alpha’s acquisition of Massey Energy.

Crutchfield did quite a few interviews, but just couldn’t find the time for West Virginia’s largest newspaper … and if you watch this video, you can see how he handled efforts by my buddy Gary Harki to ask him some questions at that sign unveiling:


But I thought I would pass on the questions we wanted to ask Kevin:

1. A number of stakeholders — the independent investigator appointed by the governor, the United Mine Workers union, several members of Congress — have questioned why Alpha would continue the employment of a number of top Massey Energy officials who played major roles in the culture of unsafe work practices that led to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Could you explain why you want those sorts of individuals in positions of authority at Alpha’s mines?

2. As a follow-up question, two Alpha workers — one company miner and one contractor — have in recent months pleaded guilty to federal charges that they faked foreman’s certificates and lied to government investigators. How do these sorts of actions fit into the idea of “Running Right” under Alpha’s safety program and culture?

3. Have you personally read the report by independent investigator Davitt McAteer that describes the culture of Massey Energy as “deviant”. If not, why not? If so, do you believe it’s accurate and how confident are you that you can change that culture?

4. We know that 17 top Massey management officials took the 5th and refused to answer questions in the investigation of the UBB Disaster. Will your company adopt a policy that refuses employment to management officials who refuse to cooperate with MSHA investigations of fatal mining accidents?

5. Two of your largest eastern mines, the former Foundation Coal operations in Pennsylvania, are unionized. Do you believe your company has a good relationship with the UMWA, and would you welcome unionization of your currently “union-free” operations?

6. A large body of scientific studies indicates that mountaintop removal mining in Central Appalachia is causing serious damage to the environment and is linked to health problems for local residents. What steps do you believe should be taken to reduce these harmful impacts both to the mountains, forests and streams and to the communities where your company operates?

7. Do you accept the scientific consensus that man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, including from coal-fired power plants, is causing global warming and, if so, what action do you and your company support to deal with this problem?

8. Studies by government agencies and outside analysts project that Central Appalachian coal production will be cut by half by the end of this decade. What is your company doing to help the communities where it operates prepare for this major economic change, and do you believe local political leaders need to do more to prepare for the potential job losses this trend will bring?

Now, some of these questions have been answered — at least to some degree — in other interviews. An especially good one was done by my friend Howard Berkes over at NPR. Howard has kindly posted a partial transcript of that interview here.

Among other things, Crutchfield said:

The first thing I would say is judge us by what happens from this day forward. I don’t hold Alpha out to be perfect by any stretch of the imagination but I think we’ve had a pretty respectable relationship with the communities where we operate, a pretty respectable safety record, a pretty respectable record with respect to environmental stewardship. And the goal here is to operate the combined company in the same manner that we’ve operated Alpha since its inception.

Of course, we know now that Chris Adkins, the controversial vice president for operations from Massey, won’t be joining the new combined company. But what about the myriad of other Massey officials — such as the two men who ran the Upper Big Branch Mine, Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead — and their possible futures with Alpha? Crutchfield said:

I’m not going to talk about individuals in the media who have yet to have discussions. It would be unfair to them and I just don’t think it’s appropriate that I do that at this point. We’re still in the middle of the integration. We’ve largely put the organization together but we still have a ways to go. And I think it would be inappropriate for people to understand what their fate is through the media rather than hearing it directly from us.

Howard asked Crutchfield about the allegation — uncovered in records unsealed because of a joint legal effort by the Gazette and NPR — that he promised jobs to some of these Massey folks in a secret pact to ease the purchase of Massey. Crutchfield said:

It would come as no surprise, just like in any transaction, people are a big part of it and lots of names were discussed. I think [shareholders suing Massey] are referring to it as the conspiracy theory. As far as I’m concerned, nothing could be further from the truth. We made our selections based on who we thought would be appropriate and fit within the Alpha culture and being able to take Alpha to new levels. So, I don’t give the conspiracy theory much thought.

Howard pressed him on this, asking:

So, just to be clear, you’re saying there was no “secret pact” to hire these people as part of the deal?

Crutchfield said:

Look, it was a $7 billion transaction. We paid a huge premium for Massey and I think any director fulfilling his fiduciary duty, while certainly he wants to take care of people as best he can, his fiduciary duty is to the shareholders and that’s a valued proposition. As far as I’m concerned, that’s where the focus was.

Given that, I would have liked the chance to ask Crutchfield what else changed about his company’s offer to Massey — other than what he called in an email message “social” aspects involving the promised hiring of Adkins, Massey general counsel Shane Harvey, and Upper Big Branch managers Blanchard and Whitehead — to make it suddenly so attractive to Massey?

Moreover, it would be interesting to press Crutchfield to decide what happened with Chris Adkins … was this purely a public relations move, or was there something that made Crutchfield decide Adkins wasn’t the best person for the job? Or did Adkins decide he wanted to move on himself?

Understanding the reasons for decisions like this gets to the heart of what folks in the coalfields should think of Crutchfield’s promises that Alpha believes in “Running Right” and not putting one ton of coal before someone’s safety.

In another document uncovered by the Gazette-NPR legal effort, a Massey board of directors advisory committee outlines the well-known and long list of safety problems at Massey mines (See coverage here and here). But the committee then says, incredibly, while urging a renewed commitment to safety at Massey:

… The advisory committee is not making any finding that Massey’s S-1 program, or any other of the company’s existing safety policies or programs, are inadequate or deficient.

I guess that leads to the last questions I’d want to press Crutchfield about: Do you believe Massey’s safety problems were real, and based on a flawed culture that put production and profits ahead of safety, or do you think it was all a PR problem? And at Alpha, are you preaching just putting a different face on things, or actually doing things differently?