Sat., April 16, 2011 12:00pm (EDT)

Mine Execs Get Key Roles Despite Safety Problems
By Howard Berkes
Updated: 3 years ago

Massey Energy shut down its Freedom Mine in Kentucky, that was targeted by federal regulators for the toughest enforcement action ever.
A top Massey Energy executive who presided over the company while it compiled some of the most criticized safety records in the coal mining industry will jointly manage the main safety program at Alpha Natural Resources if the two companies merge as expected.

That's one of the merger management shifts announced late Friday by Alpha that assures key roles for several Massey executives in the combined company.

Massey owns the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, where 29 mine workers died in a massive explosion in April 2010. Civil and criminal investigations of that tragedy are still underway, but the mine and the company had injury and citation rates that have alarmed mine safety advocates and federal regulators.

Alpha has a safety record and reputation that is better than the record and reputation of Massey Energy, according to an NPR review of federal documents and interviews with mine safety advocates.

Still, Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins will "spearhead the implementation" of Alpha's main safety program, which the company refers to as "Running Right." Adkins will share that role with an existing Alpha executive.

"I cannot think of two better individuals to lead this effort," said Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield in a letter to Massey and Alpha employees.

A Record Of Risks

Adkins was COO at Massey during 2009, for example, when four of the company's coal mines had injury rates more than double the national average and 10 had higher-than-average rates of injury, according to an NPR analysis of federal records.

During the same period, Massey's Upper Big Branch mine had more closure orders than any other mine in the country, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). These are orders issued by federal mine inspectors immediately shutting down portions of a mine due to imminent risk of injury or death to miners.

Safety violations were so persistent and dangerous at Massey's Freedom No. 1 mine in Pike County, Ky., that the Labor Department sought an unprecedented federal court injunction last November that would have placed the mine under a federal judge's supervision.

Freedom "has a high risk level for a fatal accident...on any given day" wrote MSHA official James Poynter in a court document. Massey decided to close the mine and settle the case before an injunction could be issued.

Massey Executives Stay In Control

The president of the Massey subsidiary that managed Freedom will become president of a new Alpha division of mining companies if the Massey merger is approved by stockholders. Charlie Bearse will head up Alpha's Coal River East group of mines in West Virginia, which includes Upper Big Branch and other Massey mines.

Bearse became acting supervisor at Upper Big Branch after last year's explosion, and has clashed with federal investigators during their probe of the blast.

Adkins is among 18 current and former Massey executives and managers who have refused to be interviewed by state and federal investigators trying to determine the cause of the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Other Massey executives slated for the new Alpha management team include Shane Harvey, Massey's vice president and general counsel. He becomes senior vice president of legal in the new executive structure. Harvey has also acted as Massey's chief spokesman.

Massey CEO Baxter Phillips "will continue on in a senior advisory capacity." Phillips spent 30 years at the company and worked closely with former and controversial CEO Don Blankenship before the merger prompted Blankenship's sudden retirement in December.

NPR's calls to Alpha for comment late Friday have not been returned so far.

Alpha and Massey shareholders are scheduled to vote on the proposed merger on June 1. Federal antitrust regulators have not objected to Alpha's buyout of Massey, which is valued at $7.1 billion. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.