Bye, Bye Blankenship

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, April 7, 2010 — The coal mine disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia rips at my heart. The 25 miners who died, and that’s likely to be 29, are the kind of folks I grew up with and lived with a major portion of my life. I’m a child of coal.

My family has been tied to U.S. coal for more than a century, and more than that for my European ancestors.
A little family history.

My father (Earl Maize, 1905-1976) was the son of a mine superintendent for the H.C. Frick company in Western Pennsylvania, producing metallurgical coal for the U.S. Steel Company. My dad went into the mines at age 12, although he continued his education, graduating with a degree in mining engineering, with a specialty in mine safety, from Penn State in 1927.

My father’s first job, which he held for more than 20 years in the U.S. Department of Interior, was to man the “rescue  car,” a rail car equipped with latest in mine rescue gear. The U.S. in those days had no authority over coal mine safety. That was a state responsibility (my great-uncle Richard Maize was Pennsylvania’s mine safety chief for many years). The role of the rescue car was to hook up to any railroad engine when a mine disaster came down and get to the mine to help organize rescue operations. It was bloody work.

My father then went into energy research, working for DOI’s Bureau of Mines out of Denver, Colo., including oil shale research at Rifle, Colo. (which oil shale mavens will recollect).

The next stop — mining engineers tend to be peripatetic — was Washington, where Dad became the National Coal Association’s lobbyist on mine safety issues. He left in 1952, when NCA opposed new national mine safety legislation (following a major coal mine disaster in Centralia, Ill.) and he thought the industry was wrong. He then became the mining chief for the Sheridan, Wyo., coal company, using underground mines to supply the Union Pacific with coal to power it’s giant locomotives crossing the continental divide at Cheyenne Mountain, Wyo.

That was a great job until the UP went diesel. After some time uranium prospecting out of Steamboat Springs, Colo., it was back to Pittsburgh, where my father did the basic research on resin roof bolts that help keep mine roofs from falling in. When he retired from the Bureau of Mines, he took a job teaching at Penn State, where he remained until he died.

I’ve been an energy journalist for about 40 years. Much of that time has been covering the coal industry.

All of this is to establish my coal credentials. I love coal. It’s been very, very good to me. I think I understand the business.

If Massey Energy doesn’t give CEO Don Blankenship a pink slip, the industry will face its darkest political days. Blankenship is opinionated, combative, and always in-your-face when it comes to criticism of his company or the coal industry.

He’s been ethically challenged, particularly for his opposition to unionization of his mines (the Upper Big Branch mine is a non-union mine), and his rejection of climate change legislation that would limit coal. Neither of those positions are grounds for his removal as Massey CEO. But he’s got an attitude about ethics, and that’s the problem.

The Washington Post reported recently: “The Massey Energy chairman garnered national attention in 2004 when he contributed $3 million to the campaign of a West Virginia judicial candidate, who later played a pivotal role in overturning a $50 million judgment against Massey Energy. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that the judge should have recused himself from the case.”

If I were a Massey Energy shareholder, I’d be looking at the company’s shares, which have been nosediving, and I’d be suggesting that Don Blankenship should ship out as soon as possible. The company needs a cultural and ethical makeover.