The former CEO of Massey Energy could be planning a coal mining operation in Kentucky, despite a history of disregard for mine safety laws. Don Blankenship filed papers with the Kentucky Secretary of State in January to incorporate a new coal company: McCoy Coal Group. Blankenship was in charge during last year’s deadly explosion at the Massey-owned Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. That was the catalyst that drew nationwide attention to his company’s poor safety record, and to Blankenship, a cartoonish CEO who was known to intimidate mine inspectors and force miners to focus on production over safety.
Blankenship left Massey nine months after Upper Big Branch. Now, he appears to be poised to start over in Kentucky. His generous exit package included a two year non-compete clause, but he isn’t barred from being involved with a company that produces less than five million tons of coal annually.
So far, neither Blankenship nor his new company have applied for a license or permit with the state. But one of the factors that could have barred Blankenship from getting a mine permit was removed earlier this week. In the settlement agreement over claims stemming from the Upper Big Branch explosion, Alpha Natural Resources, which bought Massey earlier this year, paid more than $200 million. Some of that money went to pay all existing citations against legacy Massey mines. Outstanding citations are one factor that would prevent Blankenship from getting a coal mine permitted in Kentucky.
If Blankenship does eventually open a new operation, mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard says he doesn’t have high hopes that it would be operated safely. Oppegard says there’s no maximum to the amount of time state and federal regulators can spend at a mine to ensure safe working conditions.
“Let’s say that the mine, like so many of Mr. Blankenship’s previous mines, had a bad safety record and a poor attitude towards safety, there’s nothing stopping MSHA or the state from having a continuous presence at the mine if they feel that’s necessary,” he said.
But manpower and money would be two factors standing in the way of that continuous presence, especially as the state faces a budget deficit.
Oppegard says the poor economy in eastern Kentucky means Blankenship will be able to find coal miners willing to work for him, despite what Oppegard calls Blankenship’s “dreadful” safety record and reputation.
“If Mr. Blankenship opened a mine next Monday, I would say he’d have a full crew by Tuesday morning,” he said. “I don’t think he’d have any problem filling a mine.”
Blankenship is not immune from criminal prosecution for the number of safety lapses that caused the explosion at Upper Big Branch. The settlement reached this week with Alpha doesn’t protect former Massey officials from prosecution, and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin has said the criminal investigation is ongoing.