Massey Energy's Blame-Deflection Strategy: The Feds Made Us Do It

Last Updated Apr 27, 2010 1:46 PM EDT

As Massey Energy (MEE) board members and CEO Don Blankenship plodded through a post-tragedy press conference, they made a ballsy and not-so-subtle public relations move. Board member Stan Suboleski tossed out a little nugget of information while reading through his prepared remarks that was clearly aimed at shifting scrutiny off of the coal mining company and onto the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

No one knows what caused the Upper Big Branch mine to explode and kill 29 people earlier this month -- the worst mining accident in 40 years. Investigators haven't even been able to access the area yet. There's been speculation the explosion could have been triggered by a buildup of methane gas caused by a dysfunctional ventilation system. There's also been a lot of attention directed towards the company's high number of safety violations at Upper Big Branch and other mines.

So what does Suboleski do? Make it a point to mention that even though they don't know what happened, we should all know this:

MSHA required several changes since September 2009 that made the ventilation in this area significantly more complex; that the volume of fresh air to the face was significantly reduced during this period; and that our engineers resisted making the changes, in one instance to the point of shutting down production for two days, before agreeing to MSHAs ventilation plan changes.
In short, if the ventilation caused the explosion, it's not our fault. MSHA's response issued late Monday didn't exactly help Massey. Federal regulators issued failure orders because the Massey's system couldn't be effectively maintained by the operator. Massey was given a choice to either repair the conditions or revise the ventilation plan, MSHA said.

Right after Suboleski made some pretty strong hints blaming MSHA, he added that air samples taken during a shift change just "tens of minutes" before the explosion didn't show high levels of methane or other gases. So, what is Massey Energy trying to say here? Why even mention this MSHA-required ventilation system when the investigation hasn't even started yet?

Massey is desperately trying to paint itself as a compliant coal mining company that puts the safety of its workers before profits. During a Q&A later in the press conference board member Admiral Bobby Inman and Suboleski pushed the "we're compliant" message even harder.

We don't even know for sure that ventilation had a factor in the explosion, Inman said during the press conference. What we're trying to document for you is that even when we didn't agree with the approach we compiled with what MSHA wanted.
Our mining engineers disagreed with their engineers, Suboleski said during the press conference. "MSHA has final say on the ventilation plan at a mine. And at one point, as I said our engineers actually recommended shutting down the long wall while they tried to finalize the negotiations with MSHA. In the end, they acquiesced and went with the system.
Of course, every time Inman, Blankenship or Suboleski tossed out a comment aimed at MSHA, they immediately qualified it with a "we're not trying to cast blame on anyone" message. Which only drew more attention to the fact that they were trying to blame MSHA. Not so subtle, guys.

Ironically, as Massey 's claims that MSHA was too strict were followed by critics who say the agency has been too timid in pursuing mine safety violations. Photo from Flickr user purpleslog, CC 2.0 See additional BNET coverage of Massey Energy: