The embattled head of Massey Energy Co. went on the defensive Thursday as he faced angry lawmakers who claim the company's indifference toward safety led to the nation's worst mining disaster in 40 years.
Massey chief executive Don Blankenship told senators he is committed to workplace safety and insisted his company worked hard to reduce the spate of serious violations at the Upper Big Branch mine in the months before an explosion killed 29 workers.
"Massey does not place profits over safety," Blankenship said in his first appearance before Congress since the April 5 explosion at the West Virginia mine. "We never have and we never will."
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., took strong exception, saying the mine had "an alarming record" of serious infractions.
"I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while at the same time boasting about its commitment to the safety of workers," said the 92-year-old senator, who spoke haltingly but forcefully from his wheelchair.
Blankenship, the hard-nosed executive with a reputation for battling regulators, has faced a wave of criticism since the accident. The nation's top mine safety official has accused the company of having a "catch-me-if-you-can" attitude about safety, the FBI has opened a criminal investigation, and some shareholders have called on Blankenship to resign.
The Senate subcommittee with oversight over spending on mine safety agencies did not examine the cause of the mine explosion. The panel was exploring how to improve mine safety and enforcement in the wake of the accident.
The most dramatic exchanges came between a still-feisty Byrd and Blankenship, who took a more somber tone as he defended his company safety record. Byrd pressed Blankenship after United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts told senators that 52 miners have died in Massey-owned mines over the past decade, the highest number in the industry.
"Why so many fatalities at Massey mines?" Byrd asked.
Blankenship said he thought the rate was "probably about average" before the latest accident, given that Massey is one of the nation's largest coal producers.
"Once you add the 29 in, it's a bad record," he conceded.
Byrd retorted: "Mr. Blankenship, Massey is not average. Massey is not average."
Lawmakers also heard from government officials who said they need more money and resources to curb the massive backlog of mine safety cases. Under the current system, mine companies can file lengthy appeals that last months or years, overwhelming government officials and delaying tougher enforcement.
"We have to remove the incentives to contest citations," said Patricia Smith, top lawyer at the Labor Department.
Some lawmakers blame Massey for clogging the system with legal challenges to dozens of safety citations to delay stronger penalties. The commission that resolves the disputes has a backlog of more than 16,000 cases. Lawmakers are trying to direct more money so it can hire more judges and staff.
Blankenship denied his company tried to "game the system."
"Rather, we are exercising our rights to due process under the system Congress has put in place," he said.
Joe Main, director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said officials need more resources like improving protection for whistleblowers, subpoena power to obtain information during routine investigations, and better ways of targeting "chronic bad actors."
Blankenship also used his appearance to attack the MSHA for the way it plans to conduct its investigation of the blast. Despite calls from media, labor unions and Massey to conduct the entire probe in public, MSHA says it needs to conduct initial interviews behind closed doors to protect the integrity of its investigation and the criminal probe.
"How likely is MSHA to point the finger at itself if the evidence gathered in confidential interviews suggests that its actions contributed to the explosion?" he said.
Blankenship said the Upper Big Branch mine complied with MSHA orders to modify its ventilation system even though company engineers believed the changes were not safe. He claimed the changes reduced fresh air on the face of the longwall mining operation, though he said it is not known whether that played a role in the explosion.
"This sounds like someone is trying to blame your agency for the deaths of 29 miners," Byrd told Main.
Main said Blankenship was wrong -- the agency ordered changes after inspections in September and January found major problems with the mine's ventilation system.
"MSHA doesn't design ventilation plans for mines," Main said.