National spotlight falls on Massey Energy following fatal mine explosion

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Two days after an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine killed 25 miners and critically injured two others, Richmond-based Massey Energy Co. — a company known for keeping a low profile in Virginia — continues to be at the center of a national media firestorm. 

Today’s spotlight fell on rescue teams who entered the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal this morning, hoping to locate four other missing miners. However, they were forced to turn back because of dangerously high methane levels. Meanwhile, the company’s lengthy record of safety violations at Big Branch and other mines continued to come under scrutiny, while its stock price recovered somewhat after plunging by 11 percent on Tuesday to $48.45, eliminating about $400 million of market value. It dropped another 6 percent on Wednesday, to $45.50. By today’s stock market close, the price had inched up to $46.14. 

The largest coal producer in Central Appalachia, Massey operates about 50 underground and surface mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.  In 2009, it employed nearly 6,000 workers and reported coal revenue of $2.3 billion.  At its Web site, the company has posted a message extending condolences “to the families who lost loved ones at Upper Big Branch.”  In a separate statement, Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship says, “Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families. We are working diligently on rescue efforts and continue to partner with all of the appropriate agencies.”

The site also notes that the company’s safety record has been better than the industry average for six years. However, federal mine safety inspectors have reported a long record of safety violations and fines at Big Branch, including two citations on the day of the explosion — the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1984.  According to records at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, one of the citations on April 5 involved the failure to maintain current mine maps of above-ground escape routes. In March, the agency issued more than 50 citations, including one on March 30 that addressed a plan for the ventilation of methane. 

According to a report in The Washington Post, three miners have died at Big Branch since 1998. Altogether, it has received a total of 1,342 safety violations since 2005, proposing $1.8 billion in fines. Massey has contested many of the alleged violations.

The cause of Monday’s explosion remains under investigation by the federal mining agency. What the tragic accident ultimately means for Massey, the country’s fourth largest coal company, also is a subject of debate. Coal analysts point out that the extended closure of a mine that produces 1.2 million tons of metallurgical coal a year, or about 3 percent of Massey’s total volume, represents a costly loss. Plus Massey will have to do its own investigation and may face lawsuits from family members of the deceased as it has in other mining accidents, including one in 2006 at the Aracoma Coal Co. in Logan County, West Virginia. In that case, two miners died in a fire, and the company agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties. 

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