The board of Massey Energy, parent company and owner of Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia where 29 miners died in explosion earlier this month, is seeking a public relations boost from a Texas-based firm with political connections.
Since the tragic explosion on April 5, Massey’s safety record has come to the public’s attention, revealing a systemic disregard for critical safety measures that could have prevented the disaster had they been followed.
The incident has placed Massey Energy and its controversial CEO Don Blankenship under fire from all directions. On the outside, federal regulators, safety advocates, and victims’ families demand to know why Massey allowed the mine and many others like it to operate under blatant violations of critical safety rules. Inside the company, shareholders and the company’s board are under pressure from public pension funds to dump Blankenship as chairman and CEO.
Massey has hired Public Strategies Inc., an Austin-based firm owned by WPP, to help it navigate the public relations quagmire and respond to questions about the company’s governance and oversight – questions that in all likelihood have no good, easy answers.
According to the Wall Street Journal, “Public Strategies’ principals include Dan Bartlett, a former White House counselor to then-President George W. Bush; Mark McKinnon, a media consultant who worked on Mr. Bush’s presidential campaigns on debates; and Jeff Eller, a former White House aide to then-President Bill Clinton.”
The explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine goes down as the worst U.S. mining disaster in decades, triggering federal regulators to put the company under a microscope for its adherence to mining safety standards.
From April 6 to April 14, the week after the Massey mine explosion, the number of safety violations at parent company Massey Energy soared.
According to Labor Department records, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) cited Massey for 130 “significant and substantial” safety violations at several of the company’s mines in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
The number of violations in the week following the tragedy exceeded the number of violations found in the same mines during the entire month of March by 109. MSHA cited Massey for 351 safety violations in March and 460 violations for that one week in April.
Four of the violations involved faulty plans for mine ventilation and the removal of combustible dust, conditions that likely played a role in the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Blankenship, a staunch Republican, is well known in industry and political spheres for his mavericky attitude toward federal safety regulations and worker protections. According to the Washington Post, “Blankenship is also a longtime foe of unions, earning the enmity of union leaders. ” Upper Big Branch Mine is a nonunion mine.