Massey Energy CEO To Appear Before Senate Panel

Six weeks after the worst coal mine disaster in decades, the mine's owner heads to Capitol Hill to answer questions Thursday. The company is Massey Energy, and its CEO Don Blankenship faces intense pressure from all fronts.

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Six weeks after the worst coal mine disaster in decades, the mines owners head to Capitol Hill today to answer questions. The company is Massey Energy and its CEO, Don Blankenship, faces intense pressure from all fronts.

To learn more about Blankenship and what he faces today in Washington, we're joined by Frank Langfitt, who's been covering the disaster for NPR.

Good to have you, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT: Good morning.

NEARY: So tell us a little bit about Don Blankenship. Who is he?

LANGFITT: Hes a fascinating figure. Hes really powerful and to some degree pretty feared in West Virginia. He began working the coal mines when he was 19, became an accountant and then rose to run Massey, which is one of the biggest coal companies in the country. Now, most coal operators are really low key. They know what they do is controversial.

Blankenships completely different. Hes very aggressive. Hes kind of a throwback to the old coal baron. And let me give you the best example, the one everybody always talks about. A few years back a competitor accused Blankenship of running him out of business, gets a $50 million verdict against Massey. Now, what does Blankenship do? Spends $3 million in a state Supreme Court campaign to find a judge, to elect a judge he thinks is going to vote his way on the appeal. And in fact the case actually inspired the John Grisham novel The Appeal.

NEARY: Now hes going up to Capitol Hill. What kind of reception is he going to get there?

LANGFITT: Its going to be chilly. Washington's not happy with Massey Energy. This was a huge explosion, 29 people died, and it was seen as something that really people didnt expect, that wed gotten past this in terms of mine safety issues. Now, federal inspectors before the blast, they found some serious problems in the mine. And what they were focusing on a lot was the air flow system, and this is designed to dilute explosive gases. And before the blast, inspectors sighted air going the wrong way several times in the mine and they said if there had been an accident, miners could've died from smoke inhalation. Now, to make things even more serious, the FBI is investigating. They're looking to see if miners tampered with methane monitors, which are designed to prevent explosions. And if they find out thats the case, its a crime.

NEARY: Now, hes going to be appearing before a Senate subcommittee. What do you think the senators will be asking him?

LANGFITT: Lots of questions, of course, about the safety in this mine. But they're also going to ask about the companys practice of appealing a lot of the safety citations from federal inspectors. Now, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, what they say is Massey uses this as a stalling tactic. They prevent tougher enforcement, keep the federal government from even shutting the mines, and they say that for Massey maybe its cheaper to appeal these citations than fix some of the bigger problems. So senators will actually be asking the mine agency, you know, if they need more money, do they need more legal power to deal with this problem. And Joe Main, hes the head of the mine safety agency, hes going to be testifying at the subcommittee as well.

NEARY: And what has Massey been saying about all this?

LANGFITT: Well, they insist over and over again that they really care first and foremost about safety, not about coal production. I can tell you, I've talked to a lot of the miners who work for Massey. They say its the exact opposite. They dont want to say this on tape because they're afraid of losing their jobs. Massey pays extremely well, so its a great opportunity for people in southern West Virginia.

They say about this accident they dont know what happened, but they're beginning to look like they're pointing their fingers at the federal government. They say that inspectors forced changes in that air flow plan that I mentioned to you and made it a lot more complicated. Now, they're not saying this caused the explosion, but as you read what Massey is saying - and I've been interviewing some people at Massey - it looks like they're beginning to prepare a defense.

NEARY: What do you see in the future for Massey and for Blankenship?

LANGFITT: Its too early to tell. I think people are watching it really closely in West Virginia. Stock is down 30 percent. And I think it all depends on what comes out of this investigation and especially if it looks like Massey caused it.

NEARY: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: Youre very welcome, Lynn.

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