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A Closer Look at Massey’s Recent Safety Awards

Amid the growing allegations that Massey Energy, the Virginia-based coal giant, doesn’t do enough to protect its workers, the company last week was quick to trumpet a series of mine safety awards that recently came its way.

The reason for the self-promotion is clear: Massey has been on the defensive ever since its Upper Big Branch mine exploded with deadly results in April, leaving the company in dire need of some good press.

Yet a closer examination of those awards leaves you wondering if they’re truly anything to crow about.

Four Massey facilities were honored last month with safety awards presented by the Joseph A. Holmes Safety Association, a 94-year-old non-profit made up, in its own words, “of representatives from state and federal government agencies, mining organizations and labor.”

Yet the United Mine Workers Association, the largest miners’ union, isn’t affiliated at all, according to UMWA spokesman Phil Smith. ”We don’t have anything to do with that organization,” he said Tuesday. “And we didn’t have anything to do with Massey getting any awards.”

The contact number on the Holmes Safety Association’s website directs callers to an official in the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which is also under fire for its role in the deadly UBB blast. (MSHA critics contend that the agency has grown too close to the coal companies it’s supposed to monitor, and that officials should have closed the doomed UBB mine based on its long record of safety violations.) That official has yet to return a call.

Furthermore, only one of the four mines receiving a Holmes award is an underground operation (like the UBB), and according to MSHA, it’s no longer producing any coal.

On top of the Holmes awards, five Massey-owned facilities took home MSHA’s “Pacesetter” safety award last month — a sign, Massey said, of “their outstanding safety records during 2009.”

Yet one of those mines, the Roundbottom Powellton operation in Boone County, W.Va., was also among the 32 mines singled out by MSHA in August 2009 as having so many safety problems that it should have received a “pattern of violations” status. (Only the high number of company appeals prevented MSHA from issuing those 32 mines a pattern of violations letter.)

Which raises the question: How could the same agency consider the same mine to be eligible for both a safety award and a pattern of violations status in the same year?

It’s not a question with which Massey has wrestled. “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,” CEO Don Blankenship said in a statement.

Whether lawmakers believe Blankenship or their own eyes is another issue altogether.

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