The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 26, 2013

Don Blankenship continues to tout safety at Massey

CHARLESTON — Former coal executive Don Blankenship continued to tout Massey Energy safety standards, criticizing a wide range of administrators, politicians and the media during a heated radio interview Thursday.

The ex-CEO of Massey, who left the company in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, fired away during an hour-long interview with MetroNews talk show host Hoppy Kercheval.

His comments fell in line with past statements about the 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners and sparked a series of investigations and overwhelming national criticism.

“Massey led the way in safety. UBB was the result of MSHA ventilation changes and natural gas inundation. It had nothing to do with any of the things that are commonly reported in the news,” Blankenship said.

Reports from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, a state investigation and a private report by J. Davitt McAteer — a former coal official under President Bill Clinton  — all concluded natural gas was not the cause.

To various degrees, each laid blame on poor ventilation, dangerous amounts of coal dust and a general atmosphere that valued profit before safety. Reports also pointed to Massey’s safety record as one of the worst in the industry.

During the interview, Blankenship downplayed each of the reports, instead citing the report Massey conducted. It said an unpreventable surge of natural gas caused the explosion.

“These (media) programs that you go on, they’re constant criticisms of what was done at Massey,” Blankenship said Thursday.

“I think people need to look at the big picture: We produced probably 800 million tons (of coal) under my tenure ... and we did a great job of managing the mines.”

He also downplayed the idea giving miners advanced warning of an MSHA inspection was an issue.

“I’ve been in the industry for 30 years. I’ve never known of anybody writing a violation for pre-notification,” Blankenship said.

“I’ve never known of any training or any law or anything that had to do with notice of inspectors being on the property. And I don’t know of any law that says you can’t do that.”

According to a 2012 press release from the U.S. Department of Labor, “the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 specifically prohibits providing advance notice of inspections conducted by MSHA.”

The press release specifically points to UBB superintendent Gary May, who pleaded guilty in 2012 to giving advance notice and otherwise preventing coherent inspections. Kercheval pointed to the act. Blankenship reiterated any potential issue of advance notice was never brought to his attention.

Blankenship has faced no criminal charges in connection to the UBB disaster, but other Massey executives have admitted culpability.

In February, former Massey executive David Hughart implied Blankenship ordered advance notice of mine inspections, according to The Associated Press. Blankenship and his attorneys have denied those accusations.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin led the investigation that resulted in the guilty pleas of several former Massey leaders. He recently told the Daily Mail the investigation into Massey is ongoing.

Blankenship’s comments might mirror previous statements, but they’re some of the first public comments he’s made recently.

Before the UBB tragedy, the talkative Blankenship was a prominent figure in the state’s political scene and the national dialogue about coal. He drastically cut down on public appearances after the explosion.

Born and raised in southern West Virginia, Blankenship said Thursday he spends most of his time these days elsewhere.

“I don’t need anybody’s thanks. I don’t need anything from anybody, as a matter of fact, because I don’t stay here very often,” Blankenship said, in response to an angry caller.

He’s started posting columns more regularly to his website, with topics ranging from global warming to national politics. After two years of no activity, in late 2012 he started tweeting again on the social media site Twitter.

He spoke last month at a coal rally in Chapmanville, again championing Massey’s safety record in an interview with WOWK-TV. And most recently, he sent an opinion piece to the Daily Mail downplaying his ties with Mingo County politicians involved in a federal investigation.

Kercheval said Thursday a “mutual friend” told him Blankenship was interested in coming on the show.

The interview was testy at times, as Blankenship accused the conservative Kercheval of carrying water for President Barack Obama and those fighting the “war on coal.”

Kercheval scoffed at the idea of Blankenship “lecturing me about responsibility.”

Audio and video of Kercheval’s interview with Blankenship is available at www.metronews.com.

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