Massey’s annual meeting draws hundreds of protestors to Richmond

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Print this page by Paula C. Squires

Hundreds of protestors stood outside the Jefferson Hotel today and called for the ouster of Don Blankenship, the chairman and CEO of Richmond-based Massey Energy Co. Holding signs that said “Blankenship Kills,” and “Do the right thing, fire Don,” 300-plus union workers from several states gathered to show their solidarity against Massey in the wake of a April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

“We have come here — union members, faith leaders and supportive community leaders — to show our outrage at the lack of safety in this mine,” said Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions. According to Holt, a total of 52 miners have died in Massey mines over the last decade, “more than any other coal company in America.”

Meanwhile, inside the Jefferson, Blakenship presided over the Richmond-based company’s annual meeting. He rebutted charges that the country’s fourth largest coal company is indifferent to the safety of coal miners. “We are truly sorry for their loss,” he said of the families who lost members at Upper Big Branch.  “Obviously something went terribly wrong at the mine; however we don’t know yet the cause.”

The company is committed to working with federal and West Virginia mine investigators to determine what went wrong, Blankenship added, and to take lessons from that accident to improve safety. “There’s no better teacher than difficult experiences,” he said.
The explosion, the worst U.S. coal mining accident in 40 years, has sparked other investigations. The U.S. Attorney’s office in Charleston, W.Va., is investigating a Massey subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., which ran Upper Big Branch. In addition, National Public Radio reported last month that Massey is the subject of an FBI probe into possible bribery of state and federal officials.

Only shareholders were allowed inside today’s annual meeting, although the company provided an audio feed for the press during the portion that focused on shareholder proposals. The feed was turned off during a question and answer session. A Massey representative said the company planned to post a webcast of the meeting later today at its website.

Three directors won re-election, despite a proxy battle over safety and environmental concerns. Two shareholder measures passed. One called for directors to be elected by a majority vote. Speaking on its behalf was Daniel Pedrotty, director of the AFL-CIO Office of Investment.  Requiring a majority vote to elect directors is the preferred method at two thirds of the companies on the S&P 500, he said. “It would restore integrity and accountability to the board.”

The second proposal allows Massey to work toward declassifying the company’s board, a change that requires shareholder approval. It would subject all directors to annual election rather than have members serve staggered terms. Two other shareholder proposals, calling for greater public disclosures on water management and greenhouse gases, failed. 

Michael Garland, a representative of the Office of the Comptroller for the state of New York (which serves as the trustee of various retirement funds), spoke in favor of the greenhouse-gas proposal. If there was required reliable reporting, he said Massey’s’ board would have known about the large number of safety violations at Upper Big Branch before the disaster. According to Garland, the value of the company’s shares has fallen nearly 40 percent, for a loss of about $1.8 billion in shareholder value, since the April 5 explosion.

During his remarks, Blankenship addressed the company’s financials in positive terms. He said the company experienced “solid results” in 2009 with $2.3 billion in coal revenue, the company’s second best year ever. “We’re holding our own despite the recession,” he said.

Looking to the future, Blankenship believes Massey is well positioned.  It has 2.8 billion tons of coal reserves at a time when developing countries such as China need coal to fire their power plants.

He continued to defend the company’s safety record. In 2009, he noted that company subsidiaries received three Safety Sentinel awards from federal mining safety agencies. In addition, the company spent $14 million to comply with environmental standards, including $6 million on land reformation in mined areas. 

The safety awards didn’t’ carry any weight with the crowd outside. Jim Leaman, president of the Virginia State AFL-CIO, called the throng a testimony to “working people. When they go to work in the morning, they shouldn’t have to worry about not going home at night,” he said. “When you have an accident that kills 29 miners, there’s no award for that.” 



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