“I want to thank the rescue teams from Massey Energy, teams from other coal companies, and all others who worked tirelessly and selflessly for more than a week to recover the miners at the Upper Big Branch mine,” said Don Blankenship, chairman and CEO, Massey Energy. “Coal miners are an extended family, and the dedication of our miners and miners from competitor companies who put their own lives at risk in the search and recovery effort is commendable.”
Before the miners could be laid to rest, rumors began to spread and Massey Energy began to take heat from the press, stockholders, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA), even U.S. President Barack Obama. Activist shareholders were calling for Blankenship to step down. The company’s board showed support for the embattled and sometimes controversial CEO. Massey Energy issued several press releases trying to set the record straight.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and first lady Gayle Manchin hosted a public memorial service Sunday, April 25, in honor of the miners. The service took place at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden attended and offered condolences at the memorial service along with several state politicians and regional dignitaries. As the names of the miners were read aloud, Gov. Manchin escorted the families forward to place a hard hat on each of the 29 crosses that sat before the pulpit.
President Obama delivered the eulogy at the memorial service. “Nothing I, or the vice president, or the governor, none of the speakers here today, nothing we say can fill the hole they leave in your hearts, or the absence that they leave in your lives,” Obama said.
“How can we fail them?” Obama asked. “How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them? How can we let anyone in this country put their lives at risk by simply showing up to work; by simply pursuing the American Dream? We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy; to do what we must do, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground to treat our miners like they treat each other— like a family. Because we are all family and we are all Americans.” At the end of the service, the lamps were lit, one by one, as the choir sang the hymn, “This little light of mine.”
At the U.S. Department of Labor’s request, an independent team of occupational safety experts will examine the process and outcomes of MSHA’s internal review. Both the MSHA internal review and the independent analysis of that review will be made public.
“President Obama’s statement regarding mine safety is an unprecedented public stance for an American president to take, and one that is good news for all coal miners in the United States,” said Cecil E. Roberts, president, UMWA. “His commitment to miners’ health and safety is, in my experience, unmatched by any previous president.” The UMWA called for Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main to conduct a free and open hearing process during the investigation.
After the memorial service, Massey Energy held a press conference in an effort to rebut many of the allegations the company said were simply untrue and unfair. The company has launched a Web site (www.MasseyUBB.com) to provide an archive of information about the UBB explosion.
During the press conference, Admiral Bobby R. Inman, Massey Energy’s lead independent director, explained the board’s decision to support Blankenship. “Massey Energy is dedicated to maintaining the highest level of integrity in every aspect of its operations,” Inman said. “Some have called for immediately changing our leadership. Making changes in the midst of a crisis is exceptionally high risk for all stakeholders. When the crisis has subsided and we know the facts, we will maintain the highest standard of accountability and responsibility.”
The industry expects a huge political fall out from this tragedy. Already, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions convened a hearing and listened to testimony from several sources. For more details on this story and the senate hearing, see related story on p. 28.