The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Latest News

May 19, 2010

Protesters gather at Massey Energy annual meeting

RICHMOND, Va. — A mixture of union representatives and anti-mining activists gathered outside a historic Richmond hotel Tuesday morning to protest against a common foe — Massey Energy Co.

Hundreds of people sang songs, chanted and held signs across the street from the Jefferson Hotel, while Richmond-based Massey’s board opened its annual stockholders meeting inside. Their protests were focused on Massey CEO Don Blankenship, calling for him to resign or to be prosecuted on environmental and workplace safety issues.

The meeting attracted more attention than usual because it came six weeks after 29 miners died in an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The blast is the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years and has prompted an outpouring of criticism of Massey.

At least two people were arrested inside the hotel by Richmond police. Hotel officials declined to comment, and police did not immediately identify who was arrested or why.

Environmental group Rising Tide DC said group members Kate Finneran, 22, and Oscar Ramirez, 25, were arrested after unfurling a 10-by-10 hand-painted banner that read “Massey: Stop Putting Profits Over People” from the mezzanine above the grand foyer in the hotel. They were charged with trespassing and were expected to be released Tuesday afternoon.

The protest did not prevent Massey from starting the meeting shortly after 9 a.m.

Blankenship defended the company and his own record on safety and environmental compliance.

“We reject all accusations that this company is indifferent to safety,” he said during a webcast speech to investors. “I receive a report on every lost-time accident at Massey. We want to know how the injury occurred.”

Blankenship said the result has been a significant reduction in the company’s injury rate during his tenure, which started in 1992. “Last year, the Mine Safety and Health Administration thought so much of our workplace safety record that it awarded Massey three of its prestigious Sentinels of Safety awards,” Blankenship said.

This year, the agency has deplored safety conditions at Upper Big Branch. MSHA and the Department of Justice are now investigating the explosion to determine the cause and whether any crimes were committed.

Blankenship dismissed concerns about the company’s environmental record, which includes a $20 million fine for federal water quality violations in 2008. He said the company reduced citations for environmental violations 22 percent in 2009.

“Massey is proud of its record protecting the environment in Central Appalachia,” Blankenship said. “Environmental stewardship has become part of this company’s DNA.”

Criticism has grown among Massey shareholders, some of whom pushed fellow investors to vote against three incumbent board members in response to the explosion.

“It’s long past time for this company and this board to strengthen its oversight, independence and accountability,” AFL-CIO official Daniel Pedrotty said during the meeting. Pedrotty was one of several people who spoke in favor of rejecting three incumbent directors.

Despite the objections, the three board members were re-elected. Proposals requiring directors to win a majority of votes and requiring the full board to be elected annually also passed.

The company refused to reveal the outcome of the votes, saying only that the board members received a majority of the votes. Outside the hotel, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said the vote must have been close for the company to conceal the totals.

“That tells you they got clobbered, considering the fact that they didn’t have anybody running against them. They ran unopposed and almost lost,” he said with a laugh.

North Carolina State Treasurer Janet Cowell, whose office is one of nine state pension funds or treasurer’s offices opposed to the company’s directors, called the outcome disappointing, but said the close results made it “clear that a near majority of shareholders have no confidence in these directors.” She vowed to continue the fight for different leadership for the company.

Along two streets surrounding the hotel, graying men with UMW hats and jackets waved signs reading “Don Belongs in Jail not Board Rooms.” Nearby, young activists held signs saying “Massey: Killing Miners, Killing Mountains.”

The miners, many of them retired, and activists agreed it was an odd pairing but said they came together to demand that Massey change its leadership. Many of the environmental groups have fought with Massey for years over issues at the company’s mines in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

“They’re simply focusing on one of the evils of Massey Energy and we’re focusing on one of the other ones,” Lacy MacAuley, with Rising Tide DC, said of the union-activist gathering.

Massey is predominantly nonunion and the UMW has challenged the company over worker-safety issues.

“It all comes down to Massey Energy putting profit over people,” said Charles Suggs, who traveled to the meeting from Rock Creek, W.Va. “This is not purely a Massey issue. This is a coal-industrywide issue.

“Massey just happens to be the worst at it,” said Suggs. He wore an orange jumpsuit with Blankenship’s name on the back and joined chants calling for Blankenship to be prosecuted for the deaths at Upper Big Branch, not far from his home.

Down the street, Tom Winston of Morgantown, W.Va., talked about reports that miners there had feared for their safety. Winston, who like many of the protesters rode a bus for several hours to get to Richmond, was a miner for more than 30 years, mostly in union mines where he said men didn’t have to fear for their jobs for reporting safety hazards.

In the background, chants of “Kill no more,” started up again.

“That’s it right there,” he said. “That’s the point, to get no more men killed.”

— AP Business Writer Tim Huber in Charleston contributed to this report.

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