U.S. News

Mine owner slammed over plan to move operations

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Some public relations experts criticized coal miner Massey Energy Co on Friday for announcing plans to switch coal production and miners to other mines even as rescuers were still trying to reach possible survivors from a deadly blast in West Virginia.

The Monday blast killed at least 25 miners and toxic gases have hampered attempts to search for four missing miners.

“Insurance may cover damages, but they should not be insensitive to families off the backs of whom they are making money,” said Bill Moran, a partner in the New York law firm McCarter & English and head of its crisis management group.

“I certainly understand that fiscal concerns will drive the actions of the mine owners, but that could leave the perception that they are acting too fast,” he told Reuters.

“Given what we have heard about their safety record, you could argue that they were acting recklessly, which brings negative publicity.”

Moran’s comments came as rescuers, forced to retreat by smoke and fire from the Upper Big Branch mine, placed their hopes on a remote camera to help find four miners missing since the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in a quarter century.

Search crews were unable to reach a refuge chamber that represents the miners’ only chance of survival after Monday’s blast in Montcoal, West Virginia, killed more than two dozen.

As search crews were underground, Massey told shareholders in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) that it planned to reopen the mine “at some point in the future.” In the meantime it would increase coal production at other mines and put most Upper Big Branch miners back to work elsewhere.

But the company said it was unlikely it could replace all 1.6 million tons of steel-making metallurgical coal it had planned to produce at Upper Big Branch for the year.

Michael Claes, principal and crisis communications expert at the Dilenschneider Group, said Massey’s letter came across as “not as caring as it could be, even though it was admittedly written for shareholders.”

He said the company might have added some balance by saying what it needed to do about a change in safety procedures.

“Certainly it would be helpful to their overall image to say something ... about what they would do. It at least has to show that some things are going to change,” said Claes.

“The overall takeaway is that everyone has to remember that a document will not only be seen by its intended audience.”

Massey representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.

But another crisis management expert, Richard Levick of Levick Strategic Communications in Washington, said Massey had little option.

“There are SEC requirements that they need to file when there is a material event and this clearly falls into that. In the timing, they may not have had control.”

The SEC’s only consideration, he said, was the financial implications and Massey provided those, along with updates on the status of the rescue efforts.

“One could criticize Massey for what it did or did not do in the past, but filing an 8-K (filing) is not a criticism that carries a lot of weight,” said Levick.

Massey stock ended 1.3 percent higher at $46.72 on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday.

Reporting by Steve James, editing by Matthew Lewis