Whitesburg KY

Erasing Massey

While stock investors large and small have already profited handsomely from Alpha Natural Resources’ proposed buyout of Massey Energy Co., a group of underground coal miners in Letcher County will soon get their own sale-related bonanza — the peace of mind that comes with working for corporate bosses who actually care about employee safety. As United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said earlier this week, Alpha’s safety record might not be perfect, but it’s much better than Massey’s.

On March 15, 2010, miners working for North Fork Coal Co. in the Partridge area of Letcher County learned that North Fork’s parent company was selling its assets and operations to Massey, the 95-year-old Richmond, Va.-based coal giant which had already developed a reputation as a serial violator of mine safety and environmental regulations. By the time the deal between Cumberland Resources Inc. and Massey was closed — on April 19, 2010 — Massey’s safety record was facing even more scrutiny after an April 5 explosion killed 29 miners inside the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia. Although Cumberland Resources owner Richard Gilliam left each North Fork miner a generous parting gift of at least $13,000, he also left them in the employ of a new owner that, says the UMW’s Roberts, “had come to represent all that was wrong with the coal industry, whether it be safety and health issues, environmental issues or simple respect for its workers, their families and the communities where they live.”

Nine months later, those same North Fork miners — as well as the other 1,000 or so former Cumberland Resources miners in southeastern Kentucky and southwest Virginia — face the much brighter prospect of going to work for Alpha Natural Resources if, as expected, the $7.1-billion merger deal is approved by shareholders and the Federal Trade Commission. Alpha has already made the welcome announcement it will replace Massey’s poor safety program with its own, and has also sent signals it will cooperate with federal officials in the investigation of the Upper Big Branch explosion so the matter can finally be resolved.

Hopefully, Alpha will also commit to making every change necessary to guard against any chance of a repeat of an August 23, 2009 incident at North Fork’s No. 4 mine at Partridge, when 12 miners were sent underground even though the mine had been closed after a methane ignition.

Alpha was formed in 2002 from the mining assets of the Pittston Company, which left the coal mining business and changed its name to The Brinks Company. It has operated without controversy since. Alpha now employs 360 miners at its Enterprise Mining Co. in Letcher County. Last year, Alpha committed $4 million to a 10-year college scholarship program the company says will benefit 500 high school students in the six states in which it operates.

We join UMW President Roberts in saluting Alpha for “erasing the Massey name from the industry” — and from Letcher County as well.

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