Mine Disaster? What Mine Disaster? Massey Energy Touts Its 2009 Safety Award

Last Updated May 28, 2010 5:59 PM EDT

Massey Energy (MEE), the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine that exploded and left 29 workers dead, was honored with a safety award, an accolade the company decided should be celebrated and shared with the public. Let's get the analysis out of the way and chalk this up to the worst public relations decision, ever.

Massey Energy officials, who are still dealing with the fallout from the worst mining disaster in 40 years, should have run screaming from this award. At the very least, quietly accept and agree to never -- EVER -- mention it again. Instead, the company issued a press release, which it also put up on its website for all to see.

The Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association, a non-profit organization, awarded Massey Energy safety awards to nine of its operations for "their exemplary commitment to safety excellence based on their outstanding safety records during 2009," according to a statement from the coal mining company.

All of these awards are well deserved recognition of how our members are committed to working safely and that Massey's safety culture is effective throughout the organization, chairman and CEO Don Blankenship said in the release.
Well, that makes perfect sense. The award is for 2009, and the fatal blast at Upper Big Branch happened in 2010. Never mind that the number of citations issued against Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine more than doubled, to over 500, from 2008. Surely, the rest of its mines are safe as can be.

Feel like cringing just a bit more? Two of the officers in the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association are federal Mine Safety and Health Administration employees. You know, the same agency that decried Massey's attempts at thwarting stiffer enforcement during a congressional hearing. And five of Massey's operations earned "the prestigious" (Massey's words) MSHA District 4 Pacesetter Award for safety. Among the mines that received this award was the Roundbottom Mine, operated by Elk Run Coal Co., a unit of Massey.

Roundbottom sounded familiar. Last month, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., released a list of 48 coal and metal mines identified by federal mine safety officials in August 2009 for increased scrutiny. The officials said the mines would be subject to a "pattern of violation" standard and could risk closure and heavy fines. Among those 48 mines on the naughty list was the Upper Big Branch. The Roundbottom mine, operated by Elk Run, also is on this list. (Not to be confused with the Round bottom surface mine, operated by Road Fork Development, a unit of Massey).

This safety award business is clearly flawed. And it's not just with Massey energy. The night of the fatal Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, some BP executives were on board celebrating the project's safety record. Here's a good rule of thumb: Let's not give safety awards to companies with questionable safety practices.

Photo of safety sign from Flickr user phil_g, CC 2.0 Related: