Coal Tattoo

WVU, Gordon Gee and Massey Energy

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If you believe the anonymous sources being quoted by most of West Virginia’s media outlets, it appears that Hoppy Kercheval is going to get his wish.  As the Gazette’s MacKenzie Mays is reporting:

E. Gordon Gee, former president at West Virginia University and more recently Ohio State University, will serve as the interim president at WVU starting in January, sources confirmed Thursday.

The WVU Board of Governors unanimously approved an interim president for the school in an emergency meeting on Thursday, but delayed a public announcement for a Higher Education Policy Commission meeting scheduled for Friday at 9 a.m.

Now, it’s not clear from the reporting thus far exactly how the WVU board managed to unanimously approve Gee as interim president without publicly naming him. Remember that the West Virginia Open Governmental Proceedings Act generally prohibits agencies from taking votes during closed-door executive sessions. And, the law generally prohibits agencies from voting on motions that are written in a manner which obscures the precise matter being considered. And in interpreting the statute, the open meetings committee over at the Ethics Commission has said that public bodies must name names when they are voting on personnel items.

In any event, the other thing that seems to be absent from any of these discussions — most of all from Hoppy’s column promoting Gee for the post — was any mention of Gee’s role in overseeing the environmental and safety practices of the former Massey Energy coal empire.

Gee served on the Massey Board of Directors for nearly a decade, from late 2000 until his resignation from that board (under pressure from environmental groups and from students at Ohio State University, where he was then president) in May 2009. Importantly, he served on a board committee whose duty it was to oversee management’s handling of environmental and worker safety issues.

 

In his role at Massey, Gee was a staunch defender of the company’s practices, telling The Lantern student newspaper in April 2009 (see video above):

I think if you take a look at Massey’s record, it has one of the best environmental records in the country.

Gee said this after, among other things, the huge coal-slurry disaster in Martin County, Ky., in October 2000,  two different Massey subsidiaries had pleaded guilty to criminal Clean Water Act violations in 2002, and following Massey being forced in January 2008 to pay a $20 million penalty to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the largest civil penalty in EPA’s history levied against a company for wastewater discharge permit violations.

Then there’s the Massey safety record, which the independent team led by Davitt McAteer described this way in its report on the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster:

Massey Energy engaged in a process of “normalization of deviance” that, in the push to produce coal, made allowances for a faulty ventilation system, inadequate rock-dusting and poorly maintained equipment. The pre-shift, on-shift examination system – devised with the intention of identifying problems and addressing them before they became disasters – was a failure.

Prior to Upper Big Branch, when two miners died in a fire at Massey’s Aracoma Mine in Logan County, lawyers for the widows had to fight in court to get to question Gee about the board’s work on safety issues.  To my knowledge, we still don’t know what Gee said. Massey settled in the middle of trial.

But since Upper Big Branch, there’s been even more scrutiny of Massey’s management and its government board. Members of the board were among those sued after the disaster, and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has said in court papers that former Massey executives and board members “may be, or may become” targets in the ongoing federal criminal investigation.