Massey CEO Faces Sharp Questions From Congress

Don Blankenship, the head of Massey Energy Company, testified Thursday before Congress for the first time since an explosion killed 29 workers at his company's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Blankenship appeared before a Senate subcommittee considering mine-safety spending after the worst mine accident in 40 years. Michele Norris talks to NPR's Frank Langfitt about the hearing.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For the first time since last month's coalmine disaster in West Virginia, the mine's owner appeared on Capitol Hill today.

Massey Energy has come under intense criticism for safety violations before the blast that killed 29 miners. But the company made no apologies before a Senate subcommittee today. Instead, Massey CEO Don Blankenship came out swinging.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy Company): Let me state for the record, Massey does not place profits over safety. We never have and we never will, period.

NORRIS: NPR's Frank Langfitt covered the hearing, and he's here with us in the studio.

Frank, what else did Mr. Blankenship have to say?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, he started off, Michele, saying, you know, he was sorry for the loss of these 29 miners, but then he went right on the offensive. He insisted the mine had been safe. And what he did was he started to target the federal safety inspectors that had been looking at the mine. He said that they forced changes in the mine's ventilation plan. Now, that's really important because it dilutes explosive gases and tries to prevent the exact kind of explosion that happened. And what he seemed to suggest is that this might have contributed to the problems of the mine and what led to the explosion.

He also tried to stake out the high moral ground. He criticized the Mine Safety and Health Administration for holding these investigative interviews they're doing right now privately, and he said they really had to open them up. Here's how Don Blankenship put it.

Mr. BLANKENSHIP: We do not think that MSHA should be permitted to investigate itself behind closed doors. How likely is it that MSHA will point the finger at themselves if the evidence gathered in confidential interviews suggest that the actions, their actions, contributed to the explosion?

NORRIS: Again, Don Blankenship speaking there. How did people at the hearing respond to the Massey CEO's statements?

LANGFITT: Well, many of the senators were skeptical. They asked a lot of tough questions. And other witnesses, many of them were government officials, presented like a really different picture of the mine and the company.

Joe Main, he runs the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he said the government lost some surprise inspections of several Massey mines and found all kinds of violations. This was just in the last month or so. And he described them. He actually used the word outlaw to describe the operation, which is pretty strong language.

Cecil Roberts, he's the head of the United Mine Workers, he also spoke at the hearing, and he said miners at Upper Big Branch that's the mine that exploded were scared to death of the conditions there. And he quoted from a letter written by one of the miners who died.

Mr. CECIL ROBERTS (President, United Mine Workers): There was a young man named Josh Napper, I know his family, 25 years old, wrote a letter to his mother, his fiancee and his baby, and said if I die, I want you to know I love you. Now, that's the kind of letter people used to write going to Vietnam.

NORRIS: Frank, do we know yet what caused this accident?

LANGFITT: No, not yet. The investigation in some ways is just getting going. The federal government is interviewing family members of victims, and they will begin to interview miners.

Now, my NPR colleague Howard Berkes and I, we've been traveling around the Coal River Valley, where this happened, over the last several weeks, and we've interviewed about 10 miners who worked at Upper Big Branch, and most of them point to that ventilation system that I mentioned and that Don Blankenship was talking about.

Well, they say it's never quite worked, changed a lot, and the air was sometimes going in the wrong direction, very confused. And that's really essential to a safe mine because you have to kind of get a flow of air through the mine to clean out that methane and that coal dust. And that's what federal inspectors think happened there that caused this enormous blast, a buildup of methane and coal dust, and the blast was about two miles inside.

NORRIS: So you say the investigation is just now getting underway. Where does the government go from here?

LANGFITT: Well actually, on Monday, in Beckley, West Virginia, the House is going to have a hearing, and they're going to bring in the family members of victims. And the thing to kind of listen for here is what did they hear right before the blast from some of their family members who were working there? Are there any clues as to what was going on in the mine, anything that might have caused this?

Inspectors are trying to get underground, to actually look at physical evidence, but the gases are too dangerous right now. Now, once they get in, they'll be able to figure out where the blast started, and then they'll go from there to try to figure out what triggered it.

Now, of course, these investigations are complicated, usually take a long time, certainly months, sometimes even up to a year.

NORRIS: Thank you, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Michele.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt.

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