RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And last week's coal mine disaster thrust the mine's owner, Massey Energy, into the national spotlight. People in West Virginia have known Massey for years, as a powerful and divisive force in the state's Coal River Valley.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.
FRANK LANGFITT: Joe Cromer works the reception desk at a motel in Beckley, West Virginia. He makes $7.40 an hour. A couple of weeks ago, his grandfather, a former coal miner, urged him to change careers and triple his pay.
Mr. JOE CROMER (Receptionist): He said, you know, the only money to be made around here if you're not going to stay in school go into the mines.
LANGFITT: Hmm. Now, would you go to work for Massey?
Mr. CROMER: Personally, no.
Mr. CROMER: I've only heard bad things about Massey. They will work you to death. My uncles and my grandpa, they never worked for Massey. They always have told me, stay away from Massey.
LANGFITT: But staying away from Massey is easier said than done. Massey is the area's largest private employer and pays among its highest wages. And Massey's mountaintop removal coal mines are literally reshaping the landscape.
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LANGFITT: Richard Bradford grew up where Hazy Creek meets the Coal River
Mr. RICHARD BRADFORD (Retired Schoolteacher): I've lived here 65 years.
LANGFITT: In the mid-1990s, Massey began operating surface mines in the mountains above Bradford's one-story wooden house. Today, Massey mines surround him on three sides. Bradford's a retired schoolteacher. He says he can no longer hike in the mountains without trespassing on Massey operations. And sometimes, Massey sets off explosions that shake the houses below.
Mr. RICHARD BRADFORD (Retired Schoolteacher): I remember one time they let off a big shot up in the hills(ph), and it filled this whole holler with dust. It came all the way down here. You couldn't see nothing.
LANGFITT: How do you feel about Massey?
Mr. BRADFORD: I wish he would go back to Virginia, 'cause he's really ruined my life.
LANGFITT: The he Bradford refers to Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey, which is based in Richmond, Virginia.
Last week, Massey's Upper Big Branch mine suffered a massive explosion, which killed 29 miners. That's the nation's worst coal mine accident in four decades. Last year, the mine had a nonfatal injury rate significantly worse than the national rate. But speaking to reporters last week, Blankenship insisted Massey put safety first.
Mr. DON BLANKENSHIP (CEO, Massey): Safety always trumps. And we have inspectors from all the agencies every day. So, we don't have any control over ignoring safety procedures, and, you know, we don't want to have accidents. I mean, no matter how you look at it, the accidents, first of all, are a human tragedy; second, they disrupt you and cause additional regulations and issues, and none of us want that.
Ms. BRIAN LEMON: Massey brings us jobs, good high-paying jobs with good benefits.
LANGFITT: Brian Lemon grew up down the road from the Upper Big Branch mine. He spent 10 years in North Carolina doing construction. But when the housing industry collapsed, the only high-paying work he could find back here was with Massey.
Mr. LEMON: I jumped at the opportunity to come home to be where my family's at. Most of my family are coal miners, have always been coal miners. And I'm just, you know, I'm tickled to death to have a job.
Mr. ROB LEMON (Underground Foreman, Massey): The reason I believe a lot of people in this area have bad things to say about Massey is it's a nonunion mine, and this has always been a union territory.
LANGFITT: Rob Lemon is Brian's cousin. He's an underground foreman at Massey. Rob Lemon says he can makes up to $100,000 a year a huge wage in southern West Virginia.
Mr. R. LEMON: I don't praise Massey for everything they do. But Massey's a company that's out to make money. If I didn't think it was safe, I wouldn't be there. And whenever I think it's not safe, I'll leave.
LANGFITT: It's lunchtime at Libby's City Diner in nearby Whitesville. French fries are bubbling in the kitchen. Jim Scott owns the place and a hair salon down the street. He says Massey is crucial to the local economy.
Mr. JIM SCOTT (Owner, Libby's City Diner): You know, our evening business is mostly Massey people getting off work with Massey. As far as my hair salon goes, I'd say a large part of my business there is the wives of Massey miners so.
LANGFITT: So, obviously, you're not in the coal business but how important is Massey to you?
Mr. SCOTT: It's very important. You know, as a matter of fact, my Uncle Doody(ph), last night, we had his wake and funeral today. He got killed up there.
LANGFITT: I'm sorry. I didn't know that your uncle died.
Mr. SCOTT: Yeah. Deward Scott. We did his service last night and this morning so.
LANGFITT: How do you feel about Massey?
Mr. SCOTT: I have no problem with Massey at all. I mean, just none whatsoever. I mean, just as far as how I feel about them, you know, I'm grateful for them, to be honest with you.
LANGFITT: The subject of Massey is so sensitive here, some people prefer not to discuss it. I met one businessman who had many nice things to say about the company but he worried that his customers who don't like Massey would take offense. He said it was best to say nothing at all.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News.
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