CEO Defends Massey Energy Before Senate Panel

Don Blankenship, the head of Massey Energy Co., testified before a Senate subcommittee Thursday. The panel is investigating the causes of the deadly explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

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Also on Capitol Hill, the head of Massey Energy appeared before a congressional committee yesterday for the first time since 29 workers died in a coal mine blast last month in West Virginia. Company CEO Don Blankenship offered condolences to the families of the victims, even as he defended his company's safety record and pointed a finger at the federal government.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: When some CEOs come to Washington, they try to appear humble or contrite - not Don Blankenship. In the world of West Virginia coal mining, Blankenship is known for being aggressive. Yesterday was no exception. He began by defending his company.

Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey Energy): From the day I became a member of Massey's leadership team 20 years ago, I have made safety the number one priority.

LANGFITT: Then he switched to offense and took aim at the federal government. He focused on the federal agency that inspects coal mines. Blankenship said that before the blast, federal inspectors forced Massey to change the mine's ventilation system. The ventilation system is supposed to dilute methane and disperse potentially combustible coal dust. It's crucial to preventing explosions.

But Blankenship said the government's changes actually made things worse.

Mr. BLANKENSHIP: Our engineers resisted making the changes in one instance, to the point of shutting down production for two days.

LANGFITT: The mine safety agency, known as MSHA, thinks a buildup of methane and coal dust did cause the explosion, but doesn't think its changes were responsible. Blankenship says someone independent needs to settle that dispute.

Mr. BLANKENSHIP: A disagreement with MSHA over the ventilation plan highlights what we believe is a fundamental flaw in the way this accident is being investigated. We do not think that MSHA should be permitted to investigate itself behind closed doors.

LANGFITT: Joe Main runs MSHA, which stands for Mine Safety and Health Administration. The picture he painted of Massey for senators yesterday could not have been more different than Blankenship's. In the last couple of months, Main said his agency has received anonymous tips about problems in Massey mines and launched surprise inspections.

Mr. JOE MAIN (Mine Safety and Health Administration): We went to two of the mines, captured the phones(ph), went underground and found illegal(ph) conditions that is unbelievable in the 21st century. The conduct that we found could not be considered anymore than outlawish.

LANGFITT: Since the explosion April 5th, NPR reporters have interviewed many Massey miners. Most say the company gives lip service to safety, but is consumed with producing coal and profits. Cecil Roberts is head of the United Mine Workers and a bitter foe of Massey. Testifying yesterday, he quoted a letter from a miner who died in the blast and had feared for his life.

Mr. CECIL ROBERTS (President, United Mine Workers): There was a young man named Josh Napper. I know his family. Twenty-five years old, wrote a letter to his mother, his fiance 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.

LANGFITT: Senators also seem skeptical of Blankenship's safety claims. Tom Harkin is an Iowa Democrat and son of a coal miner. He read a memo Blankenship wrote five years ago. It told workers not to build ventilation safety controls and just mine coal.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): "This memo is necessary, only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills," end quote. It doesn't sound like putting safety first to me.

LANGFITT: Blankenship said the memo was focused on work that was unnecessary at the time and taken out of context. The government's inquiry into the disaster moves back to West Virginia Monday. A House committee will hold a hearing in Beckley to hear from victims' family members.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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