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Merged Company Tries To Retire Massey's Legacy03:46

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The most infamous company name in the American coal industry is now officially retired. But the Massey Energy legacy persists at Alpha Natural Resources, which absorbed Massey in a friendly takeover Wednesday.

That's because Alpha has folded into its management team Massey executives and officials linked to the company's poor safety record and last year's Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion, which killed 29 mine workers.

An independent investigative report about the tragedy blamed a Massey corporate "culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm."

"We're going to run right and we're going to lead by example," declared Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield, in a reference to Alpha's safety program, known as "Running Right."

"We'll let our performance be our public relations effort," he said. "We're willing to be judged by what happens from this day forward."

But deep in the Coal River Valley, not far from the Upper Big Branch mine, the transition was met with skepticism.

"Nothing's going to change," said Gary Quarles, a Massey miner himself who lost his son Gary Wayne in the Massey mine explosion that took 29 lives.

"The name will change and that's all," Quarles continued. "These men here do not know how to go about doing stuff right."

That's a reference to the coal miners, executives and managers used to doing it the Massey way. In the last two months, Alpha announced it was moving about a dozen Massey officials into Alpha management. Crutchfield defended that lingering hold on the Massey legacy in an interview with NPR.

"Those are the decisions that have been made to date," Crutchfield said. "We stand by them. But, if there's a need to create a course correction in the future that's exactly what we'll do."

Chris Adkins' Departure

And then Crutchfield suddenly disclosed a course correction involving Massey chief operating officer Chris Adkins, who was tapped to help integrate Alpha's Running Right safety program in the newly-merged company.

That move triggered fierce criticism because Adkins presided over Massey while it compiled one of the worst safety records in the industry, including two deadly mine disasters. The company was held criminally liable after one of them, an explosion and fire at the Aracoma Alma mine that left two workers dead.

The Adkins move to Alpha was singled out in a recent report on the recent independent investigative report on the Upper Big Branch (UBB) disaster.

"One need look no further than UBB, where conditions, as described in this report, reflected a mine in which safety standards were swept aside in the rush to produce coal," the report said, in raising questions about Alpha's hiring of Adkins.

In recent weeks, the United Mine Workers of America condemned the job assignment, and Congressman George Miller (D-CA) and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) cited it in a letter to Crutchfield.

"We are troubled by indications that, as Chief Executive, you could think that miners are fairly served by perpetuating Massey's safety culture for even one minute longer," Miller and Woolsey wrote.

In the NPR interview Wednesday, as Crutchfield was pressed by the hiring of Adkins and other Massey executives, the Alpha CEO suddenly said, "Chris will not be joining Alpha. I'm not going to say any more about it than just that."

Crutchfield would not say whether Adkins made that choice or Alpha made it for him. Adkins walks away with a departure package worth $11 million, according to an analysis conducted by investment banking firm Cypress Associates on behalf of the of families of seven Upper Big Branch victims and a survivor suing Massey Energy.

Status Unclear Of Two Massey Execs

Crutchfield also would neither confirm nor deny the hiring of Chris Blanchard and Jason Whitehead, two executives at the Massey subsidiary responsible for the Upper Big Branch mine. The two spent four hours underground and unsupervised immediately following the deadly explosion last year. State and federal mine safety officials and investigators have expressed concern that the pair may have tampered with evidence.

Blanchard and Whitehead were among nine Massey executives and managers named by Crutchfield in a deposition three weeks ago, before he said, "There's a reasonable likelihood every one of those will be extended an offer" for jobs after the merger.

The deposition is among more than 5,000 documents unsealed Wednesday in a West Virginia court in response to a motion filed jointly by NPR and the Charleston Gazette.

In the NPR interview, Crutchfield refused to discuss the status of any other Massey official. But he defended his decision to consider them for jobs.

"We made our selections based on who we thought would be appropriate and fit within the Alpha culture and being able to take Alpha to a new level," Crutchfield explained.

Shareholders Fear 'Secret Pact' For Jobs

The court documents are part of a lawsuit by several large institutional Massey shareholders who allege that the job offers were part of a "secret pact" to make sure Alpha bought Massey. The documents also show that another company, Arch Coal, had offered more money but had a merger plan that "straightens out Massey," according to a Crutchfield e-mail.

The shareholders claim that the job offers transformed the Alpha bid from hostile to friendly and protected Massey executives and board members from liability if the lawsuit succeeded.

"I don't give the conspiracy theory much thought," Crutchfield responded.

Crutchfield said Alpha would launch a massive training effort, involving nearly 600 sessions, to change the safety culture at the former Massey mines. Alpha has a better safety record, according to documents on file at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Strict attention to safety "is not a suggestion," Crutchfield insists. "This is the way we will run our company...A ton of coal is not worth a life under any set of circumstances."

Still, skepticism lingers. That's because the merged Alpha management team includes Shane Harvey, Massey's general counsel and spokesman, who persistently pressed the company's theory that the UBB explosion was due to an unpredictable and unpreventable infusion of natural or methane gas. Mine disaster investigators say there's no evidence to support that theory.

Also moving to Alpha is Charlie Bearse, president of the Massey subsidiary responsible for the Freedom #1 mine in Kentucky, which was targeted for the Labor Department's first ever federal court injunction. Massey settled the case before the mine could be placed under federal court supervision.

Freedom "has a high risk level for a fatal accident ... on any given day," wrote mine safety official James Poynter in a court document.

Alpha's own assessment of the Massey culture concluded it "is driven by a strong focus on production...with...employee safety and regulatory compliance receiving minimal consideration," according to documents unsealed in another shareholder lawsuit in Delaware.

Massey executives and managers who were part of, and responsible for, that culture are still part of the Alpha management team. That may make Crutchfield's efforts to keep the focus forward elusive.

Copyright NPR 2016.

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