The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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August 15, 2010

Investors say company exaggerated safety claims

Profits at any cost led to poor conditions before blast at UBB mine, lawsuits allege

What sparked an explosion that roared through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine on April 5 is still a mystery. High levels of methane and coal dust are the assumed culprits, but investigations are ongoing to pinpoint the cause of the country’s worst mine disaster in four decades.

The energy giant’s stockholders aren’t waiting for an official ruling to demand their own answers — and money they say they lost.

Massey investors are lined up at the courthouse. They claim Massey, controversial chief executive Don Blankenship and other company leaders misled the public about the company’s safety record.

Massey falsely claimed safety as its top concern, investors say in separate class-action lawsuits, even as it maintained a profits-at-any-cost approach.  Its strategy involved holding off regulators whose deeper involvement in the mine could have prevented the tragedy, the suits claim.

In the meantime, Massey officials hint that federal regulators are at least partially responsible for what happened at Upper Big Branch, since they hamstrung the company’s air-treatment program for the mine.

Massey has sued the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, demanding permission to use air treatment equipment in the mine. The company denies the suit is a preemptory strike against a federal investigation into the explosion or its potential findings.

Explanations abound

Three investigations into what happened at Upper Big Branch are under way — one led by federal mine regulators, another led by the state and a third ordered by Massey. Though none is finished, theories have emerged about what caused the explosion.

Massey, for example, has suggested a sudden, uncontrollable rush of methane may have emerged from a known crack in the mine floor.

National Public Radio suggested another possibility in a recent report on the practice of mine electricians disconnecting methane monitors from large equipment in order to bypass automatic shutoff switches. The report cited a former Massey miner and two anonymous others who noted an incident as recent as February.

No tampering was discovered on sensors since recovered from the mine, however.

Massey has disputed the report from the beginning. In its own interviews with miners, the company says it has not found one who reports seeing a monitor bypassed on a working machine.

“Massey’s safety policy forbids the operation of mining machines without working methane monitors,” company spokesman Jeff Gillenwater wrote in response to submitted questions about the shareholder suits, conditions at Upper Big Branch and theories about what caused the blast.

Blankenship has not responded to repeated requests to discuss those and other developments since the explosion.

Gillenwater said a sudden “inundation” of methane occurred in the mine sometime after the shift started at Upper Big Branch that Monday afternoon. Three foremen conducted routine checks at the beginning of the shift, he wrote, “and methane measurements ranged from zero to nearly zero.”

“There was no indication of a dangerous condition, yet only a few tens of minutes later the explosion occurred,” he said.

Massey also disputes claims made by the investors in lawsuits filed in federal district court. The company has yet to make a formal response, as it waits for the investors to sort out whether the lawsuits will be merged and who will lead the case.

“Massey disagrees with the claims made in the lawsuits and will contest the suits vigorously,” wrote Gillenwater.

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