Richmond 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 leadership.
So, 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.
Massey 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 China 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.
Sounds 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.
But the biggest news has to do with Massey’s chairman and CEO Donald L. Blankenship who sometimes works out of the Fourth Street headquarters in Richmond, but more often can be found in a corrugated metal building in the coalfields of rural Eastern Kentucky 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.
Blankenship 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.
Blankenship’s 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.
Maynard 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.
Massey’s 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.
But this year, protestors were nowhere to be seen. Cops and strapping young men in suits who looked like Secret Service agents stood in corridors. Outside, Richmond 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.
The 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 director.
When 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 surprise there.