Coal Tattoo

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., was just assuring me yesterday that the “new ownership” in Southern West Virginia was going to change things about the way the coal industry operates.

Perhaps Rep. Rahall should talk to his colleague, Rep. George Miller — the ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees mine safety and other labor issues — about this, because Rep. Miller doesn’t seem too convinced.

Readers may recall that back in late May, Miller and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., wrote to Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield, to question whether Alpha was going to rid itself of Massey’s safety culture once it acquired the rival company.

Crutchfield apparently responded with this letter, which assured Miller and Woolsey that Alpha’s “Running Right” program or philosophy or whatever exactly it is was the path to improving those Massey operations, to assuring not only the safety of miners, but protection of the environment. Crutchfield wrote:

While Running Right had its origins in safety, it is now the platform for how Alpha conducts all of its business activities, including environmental stewardship and continuous improvement, and generally how Alpha expects employees to treat each other and the communities where our affiliates operate. That is why Running Right training is provided to all employees throughout the company and not just employees involved in operations. Only in this way can Alpha create the culture that will lead to true improvement in all aspects of its business.

And now, Miller and Woolsey have responded, with a long list of questions for Crutchfield — primarily about whether Alpha has looked into the new findings of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Among their questions, posed in this letter dated yesterday:

— Has Alpha investigated whether any former Massey managers who discouraged mine examiners from recording safety hazards in the mine examination books at UBB are presently on Alpha’s payroll? How many of these individuals, if any, are on your payroll, and what steps has Alpha taken, if any, to ensure these individuals no longer continue this practice of discouraging proper recording of hazards?

— We applaud Alpha’s commitment ‘to fully cooperate’ with the government’s investigation. Are the 17 Massey employees, including executives and senior managers from the UBB mine now on Alpha’s payroll who have asserted their Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions in response to a subpoena from West Virginia, assisting Alpha in its own review of events at the UBB mine? Have any declined to cooperate? Has the fact that these former Massey employees are declining to cooperate with the government’s investigation impaired Alpha’s commitment to ‘fully cooperate’?

— Has Alpha trained its managers, miners and security guards that providing advanc enotice of an MSHA inspection is unlawful? Are notices posted in guard shacks indicating that advance notice is unlawful?

The Miller- Woolsey letter also questions Alpha about the notice posted at the UBB mine that encourages workers not to join unions, saying:

Should we assume that anti-union animus is also a component of Alpha’s Running Right business philosophy at its un-represented mines? This is puzzling since recent academic research shows that union mines now have lower fatality rates than non-union mines.

The letter concludes:

In view of the continuing revelations about UBB, we are particularly interested in your response to these questions so we can better understand how you are identifying and correcting the deep flaws in Massey’s organizational culture that permitted a pattern of  egregious, if not criminal, misconduct to flourish.