Massey Energy CEO Don Blackenship has issued the expected statements, marking the deaths of 25 of his workers killed in the nation's worst mining disaster in a quarter of a century.
"We mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy," said Blankenship. "I want to offer my condolences to the miners' families who lost loved ones at Upper Big Branch."
That remorse rings hollow. There isn't a PR firm in the world that could put a positive spin on Massey's neglect of workers and the environment. Blackenship is a guy who urged underground bosses to put production ahead of all other concerns in a business that ranks among the most dangerous in the U.S.
The CEO has been in the sights of safety, environment and labor activists for a long time. But it was Forbes ,of all places, that had one of the most damaging reports on Massey's little regard for the environmental or worker safety.
"Not King Coal" (5/26/03) profiled Blackenship, who conceded that he made Massey a "poster boy" for environmental negligence. In that piece, Blackenship downplayed a 72-acre waste water spill that sent muck -- more than 20 times the volume of crude that escaped from the Exxon Valdez -- 36 miles downstream forcing towns to turn off water supplies as an "accident that could have happened to anyone."
West Virginia's Surface Mine Board cited Massey for 501 safety violations for two years through 2001, reported Forbes. Its three biggest rivals, mining twice as much coal as Massey, received 175 violations. Blackenship claimed to be hounded by safety people, but admitted the company "doesn't pay much attention to the violation counts."
That bum safety regard remains intact. The New York Times reported today that the Upper Big Branch mine recorded an injury rate worse than the national average for six of the last 10 years. The mine had 458 violations in 2009. The paper noted that safety concerns were heightened after a Blackenship memo became public in 2006 in which he told underground superintendents to put production first. "This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills," wrote Massey's chief.
Following completion of rescue/recovery operations, federal inspectors will be crawling through the Upper Big Branch mine and probing Massey's operating procedures. Criminal negligence charges may result.
One thing is for certain: Massey's next CEO will be more concerned with worker and environmental safeguards than Blackenship ever was. That's more than PR. It's the moral thing to do.