Don Blankenship, the lightning-rod CEO of Massey Energy whose company has notched a long list of safety violations that it has systematically challenged, calmly parried sharp questions from senators in his first appearance before Congress since the April 5 blast that killed 29 miners and left one still hospitalized.
"Let me state for the record: Massey does not place profits over safety. We never have, and we never will," Blankenship said in an opening statement before a Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. "Massey Energy does not 'game the system,' as some have insisted."
That did not sit well with a frail but still feisty Sen. Robert Byrd, the 92-year-old West Virginia Democrat who summoned Blankenship to Washington. Wagging his gnarled finger at the CEO, he said Massey bears the ultimate responsibility for the health and safety of its workers.
"I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers. I can't understand that. The Upper Big Branch mine had an alarming -- an alarming -- record," he said. "Shame!"
The Upper Big Branch mine was cited for safety violations 515 times in 2009 and 124 times in 2010 before the blast. Last year, Massey was ordered 48 times to stop work in the mine because of unsafe conditions.
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, who sat beside Blankenship at the witness table, said those numbers "far exceed industry norms." He noted that 23 miners had died in nonunionized Massey mines in a 10-year period before the April 5 blast. "For the life of me I can't come up with another coal company that have had that many die," Roberts said.
Since the blast, Massey has been pummeled in the media. The company's board of directors face a possible shareholder revolt, as Massey's stock has plunged about 40 percent since the disaster. This week alone shares dropped 10 percent amid a report the company may face a criminal investigation.
Yet the famously in-your-face CEO, whose tweets bashing global warming and the federal government turned tame after the blast, has said he won't resign, because the tragedy was "not the result of my management style."
The cause of last month's blast was not discussed at the hearing. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the panel chairman, said such questions were off-limits because the accident is still under investigation. The focus instead was on what Congress and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) could do to improve monitoring and conditions underground.
Blankenship rejected charges that he scrimped on safety. Speaking with little expression, he defended his company's record, even saying that MSHA had "certified that the Upper Big Branch mine has no outstanding major safety issues" and was found by federal officials to be in "good condition" just days before the disaster.
Asked about that statement in the CEO's written testimony, Joseph Main, assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health, said MSHA does not certify mines as safe or good. "There is no doubt in my mind conditions in that mine were not good," he said. He noted that in September and again in January, federal inspectors found inadequate ventilation in the mine that "gravely endangered miners."
When it was his turn to testify, Blankenship said, "We take violations extremely seriously," and that accident rates since he took over the company in 2000 had gone down. He insisted that his company was a safety innovator in the industry and cited 120 rules and equipment enhancements that exceed legal requirements. He called April 5 "one of the worst days of my life and in Massey Energy's history."
But Harkin wasn't buying it. He asked Blankenship about a 2005 memo to mine superintendents telling them, "If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills."
"That doesn't sound like putting safety first," said Harkin, who with Byrd and briefly Democrat Patty Murray of Washington were the only senators in attendance.
Blankenship replied that was "true if you read it in the sense" it came out. "That memo was poorly drafted," he said, noting he later sent out another with different wording.
The CEO was unabashed in defending his company's appeals of safety violations.
"We do appeal many of the citations, not to avoid correcting the problem but because we disagree with the inspector's judgment or because we believe that a proposed penalty is unfair," he said. He pointed out that Massey's final penalties after the review process are nearly 40 percent less than what MSHA proposed, "a sure sign that our appeals are not frivolous nor are they taken for purposes of delay."
He then charged there was a "fundamental flaw" in the way MSHA investigations are conducted. Noting that his company disagreed with MSHA safety orders to improve ventilation in the mine, he suggested there is a conflict of interest. "We do not think MSHA should be able to investigate itself behind closed doors. How likely is MSHA to point the finger at itself if the evidence gathered in confidential interviews suggests that its actions contributed to the explosion?"
Said Main: "MSHA did not run the Upper Big Branch mine. Massey Energy did."
Government monitors didn't get off the hook, though.
"Given the disturbing safety record and reputation of this mine, why oh why oh why did MSHA wait until after the tragedy to launch an inspection blitz at coal mines with a history, I mean a history, of patterns of violations?" Byrd asked.
"All I can say, Senator, is the agency didn't do it," Main replied. "That's something we have to look at and try to figure out."