It’s WVU Day up at the statehouse, so I guess we’ll be treated to a lot of “selfies” of university President E. Gordon Gee. But there’s a timely report out from West Virginia Public Broadcasting, in which someone from our state’s news media finally questions Gee about his history and relationship with Massey Energy and indicated former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.
Public Broadcasting’s Scott Finn asked Gee to comment on the four-count indictment that alleges his old friend led an effort to violate safety laws, thwart government inspections, and then lie to securities regulators and the investing public at the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in an April 2010 explosion (recall that Gee had not only served on Massey’s board, but on that board’s safety and environment committee — well, that is, he did, before he resigned those posts under pressure from environmental groups and Ohio State students).
Scott asked him:
Dr. Gee I know you’re not just concerned about student safety, but worker safety as well. Until you resigned from the Massey Energy Board of Directors in 2009, you served as chairman of their Safety, Environmental and Public Policy committee. In light of that, what’s your reaction to the federal indictment of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship in relation to the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
Gee responded initially:
Well, you know, obviously, I think all of us who were every involved in mining in this state, and I certainly was, believe that the safety of our workers is the number one priority.
But Gee dodged any comment on the indictment, saying:
… It is probably inappropriate for me to comment on the indictment itself because I’m not engaged in it, I’m not familiar with it. I think this is a matter for the federal courts and a matter for them to resolve.
Scott pressed on, noting the findings of Davitt McAteer’s report on Upper Big Branch — that Massey Energy had a terrible safety culture, one McAteer’s team described as “the normalization of deviance,” and asked Gee:
I know you care deeply about safety, what do you think kept you and the other Massey board members from understanding the depth of the safety problems.
But here’s what else he had to say, according to the Public Broadcasting story:
“During my service on the Massey Board, that was clearly the focus on our board, was on safety and safety measures,” Gee said …
Gee said that safety was “always our number one concern” during his time on the board, and that they were “working very hard to solve the problems we had,” he said.
“These are large companies. I ran Ohio State University, which is the largest university in the country, and West Virginia University, which is one of the very large, complex institutions, and I don’t know everything that goes on there. So you have to have that sort of trusting relationship of having good people doing good things,” Gee said.
For the record, Gee was one of the named defendants in a lawsuit against Massey officials over safety conditions that were supposed to have been remedied under an earlier settlement, but — judging from the 29 dead bodies at Upper Big Branch — were not. Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey, settled that suit for $265 million. And U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin had said in court records that former Massey executives and board members “may be or may become” targets in his office’s criminal investigation.
And what about Gee’s statement that the Massey board’s focus was on safety?
Well, the available public record simply doesn’t support such a statement. As we’ve reported before, records from the Massey board indicate the body did little to force safety improvements at Massey, instead complaining that safety violations from government inspectors were focused on trivial matters and opining that Massey’s real problem was a need to change its public “tone and image.”
If you listen to the full interview, Gee says this:
We had an independent report that showed very clearly that Massey was very concerned about, and that was the reason we had an independent report, that we had these ongoing sets of relationship issues. So we called in one of the best independent folks in the country to take a look and that report clearly showed that we were working very hard to solve the problems we had and more importantly to develop a strategy for safety.
Now, Gee didn’t say exactly what report he was talking about. But we’ve reported before about a series of independent audits performed for the Massey board by former MSHA official Joe Pavlovich, and those audits certainly didn’t paint an especially great picture of Massey’s safety practices, especially at Upper Big Branch.
It’s easy to proclaim to care about worker safety. It’s harder to confront questions about ugly parts of our state’s relationship with the coal industry — like preventable disasters that cost 29 families someone they love. But until West Virginia leaders really do confront such questions, the next mine disaster could be just around the corner.