* Congressman urges felonies against coal co execs
* Ex-Massey CEO Blankenship listed as president of new co
* Environmentalists want Massey charter revoked
By Steve James
NEW YORK, Dec 7 (Reuters) - A U.S. congressman on Wednesday deplored a return to the coal industry by Don Blankenship, whose company was fined a record amount for safety violations at the West Virginia mine where 29 men died last year.
George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, also called for coal company executives to face criminal felony charges for impeding investigations, like the one into the Upper Big Branch accident — the worst U.S. mine disaster in four decades.
“When you obstruct the safety investigation, it should be a felony,” Miller told the U.S. House of Representatives. “Somebody should go to jail.”
His comments came a day after the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued a damning report on the April 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, saying it resulted from “a culture of valuing production over safety” at the mine, owned then by Blankenship’s Massey Energy.
MSHA imposed a record $10.2 million fine for safety violations at the mine and Alpha Natural Resources , which acquired Massey this year, agreed to pay a settlement of nearly $210 million over the accident.
The agreement does not resolve questions of individual responsibility, and federal prosecutors left open the possibility of criminal charges against ex-Massey executives.
Blankenship, dubbed the “Dark Lord of Coal Country” by Rolling Stone magazine last year for his iron-hand stewardship of mining companies in Appalachia, stepped down as Massey chief executive at the end of last year.
But, according to Kentucky state records, he is listed as president of a new company incorporated this year — McCoy Coal Group. McCoy was his mother’s maiden name.
On the application, Attorney Gregory Blackburn, of South Williamson, Kentucky, was listed as the company’s registered agent. Blackburn did not immediately return a call from Reuters seeking confirmation that Blankenship had started a new coal company and information on his role.
Speaking to Congress on Wednesday, Rep. Miller, a California Democrat, lambasted Massey executives for allowing the company to flout federal safety regulations as well as intimidating workers and running two sets of books to hide safety failings.
Miller said Blankenship left the company with a payout of $86 million. “And now, get this: Don Blankenship, the CEO, wants to go back in the coal business after killing 29 miners and ... the suggestion is that they might be able to give him a permit to open up a mine.
“Twenty-nine miners are dead, violations of the law, a criminal corporate culture — and somebody else says they might be able to go back in the mines?” asked Miller.
Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) union, said he recently heard of Blankenship’s possible comeback. “It’s breathtaking he has the chutzpah (gall) to get back into the industry.
“If a miner does something that creates a hazard, he can lose his papers and can’t work. But a coal company does it and 29 miners die, and nothing is done — there is something fundamentally wrong with that,” said Smith.
In another development, a coalition of environmental groups called on Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau, the Delaware Attorney General, to revoke Massey’s corporate charter. Although it became an Alpha subsidiary in June, Massey still maintains its own charter in Delaware.
“A financial settlement, even for hundreds of millions of dollars, is just not enough to prevent corporations like Massey from abusing their enormous power over our lives,” said the statement by the groups Free Speech for People, Appalachian Voices and the Rainforest Action Newtwork.
“It is simply not acceptable for corporations to buy their way out after criminally killing people, any more than it is acceptable for them to buy control over our government”