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Massey Energy has received more than 80 citations for safety violations from federal investigators. The citations account for roughly half of those issued following special inspections in five states last month.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Massey not only bore the brunt of the inspections, the company inspired them, too.

The agency [MSHA] started the so-called impact inspections after 29 miners were killed in an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010.

Four Massey mines in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky accounted for more than half the violations issued nationally during the impact inspections. The MSHA also cited mines in Alabama and Pennsylvania.

A spokesman for Massey, of Richmond, Va., said the company is working to improve safety. Massey is being bought by Alpha Natural Resources Inc.

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The first indictment has been issued in a criminal probe into last year’s explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine that left 29 coal miners dead.

The mine’s Chief of Security Hughie Stover has been accused of lying to investigators and trying to destroy mine records, reports the Charleston Gazette.

Stover is accused of falsely telling federal agents in January 2011 that Massey’s Performance Coal Co. had a policy dating back to 1999 that forbade security guards from giving advance notice of inspections. The indictment alleges that Stover “had himself directed and trained security guards … to give advance notice by announcing the presence of an MSHA inspector over” the mine radio.

It’s been one week since a group of protesters ended their sit-in at Governor Steve Beshear’s office. A group of 14 protesters spent the weekend in Beshear’s office protesting the surface mining technique commonly called Mountaintop Removal. The sit-in ended with the annual I Love Mountains Day rally in Frankfort on the 14th.

Kentucky author Silas House was among the 14. An essay about the experience and mountaintop removal was published in Saturday’s New York Times.

From House’s op-ed:

The news media and the rest of the country typically think of mountaintop removal as an environmental problem. But it’s a human crisis as well, scraping away not just coal but also the freedoms of Appalachian residents, people who have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above.

A few days after the rally, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on a spending bill that weakens the federal government’s ability to regulate mountaintop removal, though the bill may not pass the Senate.

The House debate over EPA spending overlapped with the state Senate’s Natural Resource and Energy Committee vote to declare Kentucky a “sanctuary state” that’s exempt from EPA regulation. That legislation also faces an uncertain future.

Safety measures for coal mines may cost money, but so does poor safety. Massey Energy (soon to be sold to Alpha Natural Resources) took a net loss of $166.6 million last year. The company made more than $100 million in profits last year, and had higher revenues last year.

The reason for the loss–the Upper Big Branch disaster.

The April explosion focused attention on the company’s record of safety violations and drew intense scrutiny from federal mine safety regulators. Massey has cited the increased oversight, an ongoing mine disaster investigation and resulting production declines as reasons for its losses. The company also blamed its lower productivity on difficulty in finding enough mine workers.

In the last quarter of 2010 alone, the company’s losses totaled $70.1 million.

 

United Mine Workers of American president Cecil Roberts has generally positive things to say about Alpha Natural Resources’s move to purchase the troubled Massey Energy.

In a post on the UMWA website, Roberts says Alpha does not have a perfect safety record, but the record is better than Massey’s. Roberts goes on to say Alpha will inherit Massey’s problems (mine closures due to poor safety and the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch disaster), but he seems optimistic the company’s purchase will be a net gain for miners.

Last year, Labor Department declared Massey Energy’s Freedom Mine #1 in eastern Kentucky so dangerous that it required federal supervision. Massey challenged that ruling, but a settlement has now been reached.

From NPR:

Massey Energy denies “the existence of any pattern of violations” but agrees that a U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over Freedom and can apply sanctions, including contempt of court citations, if the company fails to follow a prescribed safety plan.

As NPR reports, the Labor Department’s closure of the mine was unprecedented, as is this settlement.

For two years, no new coal-fired power plants have been started. The Rural Blog and Washington Post attribute the stoppage to tighter EPA regulations, banks’ unwillingness to finance new projects and the changing market:

After nine years in which power companies started construction of 20 generating units, the U.S. has just gone through two years in which not a single plant has been started, because of “a combination of low natural gas prices, shale-gas discoveries, the economic slowdown and litigation by environmental groups,

Massey Energy is facing lawsuits, scrutiny from the federal government and assorted business woes. Now, an openly gay miner is accusing the company of sexual harassment.

From the Herald-Leader:

Sam Hall’s lawsuit claims he endured years of verbal abuse and threats from co-workers and managers at several Massey mines in West Virginia. The lawsuit names Massey subsidiary Spartan Mining Co. and a Spartan foreman as defendants.

When the GOP takes over control of the House next year, the Education and Labor Committee will be led by John Kline (R-MN). Kline supported tougher mine safety regulations in 2006, but has lately been at odds with outgoing chair George Miller (D-CA), who will remain on the committee.

Mine safety is not always a partisan issue, but government regulation almost always is. And it’s unclear how Kline may handle proposed updates to mine safety laws in the wake of the Upper Big Branch explosion.

The Courier-Journal sums up the concerns many safety advocates have as Kline prepares for his new role.

And since his 2006 vote on mine safety, he has been less friendly to follow-up efforts by Miller and others to further change the laws.

Kline opposed a 2008 mine-safety bill and earlier this year labeled called Miller’s latest measure “ill-advised” and “a much more expansive approach” than was necessary.

In a column in The Washington Times, he advocated “restrained federal involvement” in workplace issues.

 

Massey Energy’s recent attempt to overturn a Labor Department ruling (and essentially gut a powerful and previously unused government mine safety tool) has been rejected. NPR has details.

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