Weird World of Massey Energy
Richmond-based coal firm enjoys energy boom times
while wielding political clout and beating back
critics with an in-your-face style
and the Massey family name go back nearly nine
decades. In 1920, A.T. Massey, a coal broker,
formed a firm that brought great wealth to the Virginia
capital from mines in Central Appalachia. Years later, family members contributed
tremendously to Virginia Commonwealth
University to create a special center for cancer treatment,
backed other charities and helped with civic
it is indeed odd that the Massey name has morphed
into something notorious, although it isn’t the
family’s fault. Some years ago, the coal firm
was sold to global
engineering giant Fluor, which spun
it off in the 1990s. The surviving energy firm,
Massey Energy Company, is headquartered in an
ugly, tomb-like building in downtown
Richmond. It has been garnering national headlines of the
sort most companies wouldn’t want.
Energy is the fourth largest coal company in the
United States ranked by revenues, with vast
operations mostly in Kentucky and West Virginia
and some in Southwest Virginia not far from Red
Ash. It controls two billion tons of low sulfur,
high quality coal whose prices are pushing $100 a
ton as insatiable demand from hot economies in India
and oil shortages run up energy prices. In less
than a year, Massey’s stock has risen up from
the teens to about $60 a share.
like happy days, but not exactly. For years now,
Massey has achieved notoriety for its hard ball
stances with labor unions and its treatment of the
land. It has been sued or fined for coal mine
fatalities, sludge pond washouts and other
ecological issues. It is a major player in
so-called "mountaintop removal" -- a
kind of strip-mining on steroids in which entire
mountains are chopped away to reach coal seams.
the biggest news has to do with Massey’s
chairman and CEO Donald L. Blankenship who
sometimes works out of the
headquarters in Richmond, but more often can be found in a corrugated
metal building in the coalfields of rural
not far from his birthplace in the tiny hamlet of
Stopover. Head of Massey for about eight years
now, swarthy, mustachioed Blankenship is one tough
hombre – the kind liberal elites love to hate.
is not afraid to speak his mind when it comes to
answering his critics. In fact, he takes it a step
further by getting involved in politics,
especially in West Virginia. In 2004, he spent $3.5 million to back a
controversial nominee for the West Virginia
Supreme Court and has vowed to remove another
judge who ruled against some of Massey's
mountaintop removal plans.
biggest political ploy, however, seem to have
backfired. Earlier this year, photos appeared in
West Virginia newspapers depicting Blankenship
vacationing in the sub-tropical, Mediterranean
splendor of Monaco in July 2006 with none other
than West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Elliott
"Spike" Maynard, who, of course, would
be involved in court cases involving Massey.
has insisted that he recused himself on Massey
matters, although in one case he voted Massey's
way, joining the court majority, according
to media reports. But it wasn’t the end of his
troubles. This past week, on the same day as
Massey’s annual meeting in Richmond, angry
Mountain State voters kicked Maynard out of office.
According to Charleston newspapers, he may be the target of an FBI probe.
annual meeting was a curious affair as well. In
the past, environmental and labor protestors had
always followed Massey’s annual meetings around.
They called attention to the company’s behavior
by holding up signs and plunking banjoes.
this year, protestors were nowhere to be seen.
Cops and strapping young men in suits who looked
like Secret Service agents stood in corridors.
police cars stood parked at street corners. I
tried to get into the meeting, but was turned away
because I am not a stockholder. I was told to
watch a Webcast of the session elsewhere because
the media might cause a disruption.
scene strangely reminded me of a confab I once
attended a dozen years ago in Baku, Azerbaijan,
involving the country’s new president, who had
been the region chief of the KGB in the Soviet
days. I know there’s no connection, but one of
the directors and shareholders at the Massey
Energy meeting was Bobby Ray Inman, a retired Navy
admiral who had been director of the super secret
National Security Agency and a CIA deputy
I did watch the Webcast later on, I noted what
seemed to be a hopeless gesture. A man from the
AFL-CIO read a proposal from angry, dissident
shareholders demanding that Blankenship and other
executives prepare detailed quarterly reports on
how much company executives spend on political
contributions and who in the firm decides where it
goes. The proposal was quickly shot down. No
May 19, 2008