CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy's board of directors vowed Thursday to stick by company CEO Don Blankenship, while federal and state investigators revealed potentially dangerous conditions may delay for a month or more the underground portion of their probe into the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
Bobby R. Inman, a former Navy and CIA officer, issued a statement on the board's behalf in his role as the "lead independent director" of the Richmond, Va.-based coal giant.
"The Massey Energy family continues to grieve for those lost in the awful tragedy at Upper Big branch and remains fully committed to the safety or our members," Inman said.
"During times like these, a change in senior management is not appropriate or in the best interest of our members and shareholders," Inman said. "Therefore, we want to emphasize that Don Blankenship has the full support and confidence of the Massey Energy Board of Directors."
Inman issued the statement just after Blankenship vigorously defended Massey's safety record in a conference call with industry financial analysts, and as the company was hit with a second lawsuit by shareholders alleging Massey management has ignored growing safety problems.
"Massey's management has been well aware of safety issues, but has chosen to drive the company toward higher coal production regardless of the cost to its workers' health and safety," says the suit filed Wednesday in Wyoming County Circuit Court on behalf of the International Union of Operating Engineers Pension Fund, which owns Massey stock.
Last week, a similar suit was filed against Massey and its board by another stockholder group. One Massey board member, Lady Barbara Thomas Judge, resigned earlier this week, but did not publicly state a reason for the move.
In that case, Kanawha Circuit Judge Jim Stuckey on Thursday ordered Massey directors to appear in court next month to explain why they should not be held in contempt for violating a previous settlement to improve oversight of Massey's workplace safety performance.
Massey is under intense scrutiny from state and federal regulators and the national media, following the huge underground explosion that killed 29 workers at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County on April 5.
Mine safety experts have said preliminary indications are that the explosion involved an ignition of methane gas that was made far worse by accumulations of highly explosive coal dust in the mine. Massey had been cited repeatedly for ventilation violations and coal dust accumulations prior to the explosion.
During Thursday's conference call with stock analysts, Blankenship defended the company's safety record in response to several questions about the explosion and media coverage of repeated violations at Upper Big Branch.