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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.

A federal judge has determined that the widows of two men who died in a mine fire in West Virginia five years ago cannot hold federal mine inspectors responsible for the deaths.

The ruling comes in spite of an internal review that found the inspectors culpable.

From NPR:

U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver accepted that “stinging assessment,” as he called it, but still dismissed the lawsuit Bragg and Hatfield filed against MSHA officials.

Copenhaver said he couldn’t “impose a legal duty” on MSHA and its inspectors and managers because that “would directly conflict with Congress’ decision to place the primary responsibility for mine safety on mine operators.”

 

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.

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.

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.

Attorneys for the federal government and Massey Energy are in Covington for a landmark hearing that could change the future of mine safety law enforcement.

NPR has more:

The hearing involves Massey’s Freedom Mine No. 1 in Pike County, Ky., and the Labor Department’s attempt to have a federal court essentially seize control of the mine, order safety fixes and supervise compliance.

This “injunctive relief” option in federal mine safety law has been on the books for 33 years, but was never used until November, when the Labor Department filed its case against Freedom. The agency’s action is part of the Obama administration’s purported get-tough response to the deadly explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in April.

Much of the news about Massey Energy concerns outgoing CEO Don Blankenship, and how responsible he will be found for the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. But two other Massey employees have been sentenced in criminal court for an accident that occurred due to lax oversight.

From the Rural Blog:

Four Massey Energy foremen were sentenced Thursday to a year of probation and a total of $7,000 in fines for their role in the 2006 fire that killed two workers at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, W.V. The foremen, Donald R. Hagy, Terry L. Shadd, Edward R. Ellis and Michael A. Plumley, admitted to not conducting required mine-evacuation drills prior to the fire…

 

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will retire at the end of the year.

From the West Virginia Gazette:

The move comes amid persistent rumors that Richmond, Va.-based Massey will be sold to another mining firm, and as the company struggles to recover from the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in April, which killed 29 workers and was the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than 40 years.

In a prepared statement issued at about 6 p.m., Massey’s board of directors gave no clear reason for the move, but said that Baxter Phillips, Massey’s president, would take over as chairman and CEO.

Here is the full statement from Massey.

The announcement came after a judge ruled that Blankenship must face two lawsuits that hold him personally responsible for the Upper Big Branch explosion.

The widows of William Griffith and Ronald Maynor, who were killed in the April 5 blast at Massey’s Performance Coal unit, claim the Richmond, Virginia-based company and Blankenship were responsible for violations of federal and state safety regulations that led to the explosion. The CEO was “willfully negligent” in his direction of the company subsidiaries operating the mine, they said in separate complaints.

[edit]

Blankenship, 60, was too far removed from supervision of the mine to be held liable and claims against him should be dismissed, [Blankenship’s attorney Thomas] Flaherty told Thompson at the hearing.

“Blankenship is running the great-grandparent” of the Upper Big Branch mine, Flaherty said. “He has control of UBB from the 60,000-foot level.”

“Don Blankenship ran these companies negligently,” Mark Moreland, the widows’ attorney, said during the October hearing. “The cause of action is negligence.”

While it isn’t online yet, Rolling Stone recently published a scathing profile of Blankenship.

Massey Energy owns the Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in April. Transocean owns the oil rig that blew up earlier this year, killing 11 workers and causing an oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.

Aside from recent disasters, what do these companies have in common? Government safety awards.

From the Washington Post:

Worker safety advocates say the awards – given, in some instances, to companies involved in disasters – show the dangers posed when federal agencies become too cozy with the industries they regulate.

[edit]

“This allows companies to promote themselves a certain way. Shareholders and employees are told: ‘The government thinks we are safe,’ ” said Celeste Monforton, a former senior official at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and assistant research professor in occupational health at George Washington University. “It can potentially be used as a shield against criticism when problems arise.”

Which is what happened after the Upper Big Branch mine exploded this spring. Within days, the MSHA released an 11-page report it wrote for President Obama detailing Massey’s safety record that characterized it as “troublesome.”

Massey immediately pointed to the three Sentinels of Safety awards it won six months earlier from the MSHA and the National Mining Association. It was the most a mining company had received in a single year from the awards program, which dates to Herbert Hoover’s administration.

(h/t Rural Blog)

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