Massey Defends Safety Record; History Doesn't Help

We knew before Monday, April 5, that mining is a dangerous business. The blast that day that killed at least 25 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia was a woeful reminder. Meanwhile, as the investigation into what happened was just getting started in earnest, the owner of the UBB mine, Massey Energy Co., on Thursday defended its safety record in a statement to its shareholders.

"The safety of our members has been and will continue to be our top priority every day," Massey said in the statement, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. "Media reports suggesting that the UBB tragedy was the result of a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded."

Well, maybe not completely. After all, Massey has been cited for more than 1,300 safety violations at the mine since 2005.

In its statement, Massey notes the UBB mine has, since January 2009, had less than one violation per day of inspections by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, and that rate is consistent with national averages. Even if that's true, doesn't it mean only that the national averages are consistently bad?

On Tuesday, the day after the explosion, Massey was displaying a boxed notice on its homepage, which apparently was posted prior to the incident, lauding the company's commitment to safety and its recent record. Thursday's statement with the SEC used some of the same language: "At Massey, safety is everyone's concern. We are committed to instilling a culture of safety through our S-1 (Safety First) program. S-1 combines training, mentoring, monitoring, safety innovation, and risk reduction. . . . Our safety efforts and accomplishments are well known and acknowledged by our industry."

Again, there may be truth there, but even if so, to me it means only that the industry needs to set the safety bar higher. This is my thought after reading on the Massey Web site this morning that the safest year in Massey history was 2007 -- and then reading on MSHA's Web site, also this morning, that in 2007 Massey received 7,277 citations and orders from the agency and paid almost $3.75 million in civil penalties that year. The total citations and orders were higher in both 2008 and 2009 -- more than 10,000 for both of those years. So far this year, the company has already received 2,315 citations and orders -- and that's before the fallout to come from the explosion.

Sorry, but those numbers don't scream "culture of safety." Or "commitment" to it, for that matter. As of early April 9, the only official citations MSHA has issued related to Monday's explosion have been against the UBB mine operator, Performance Coal Company, for its failures regarding the permanent splicing of trailing cables and having an escapeway map showing the designated escapeways from the working sections or the miners' work stations to the surface or the exits at the bottom of the shaft or slope, refuge alternatives, and SCSR storage locations. I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict there will be more.

Posted by Ronnie Rittenberry on Apr 09, 2010

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