CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joe Main pointed fingers at each other Thursday over the April 5 explosion that killed 29 workers at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
While questioning Blankenship and Main, Sen. Robert C. Byrd criticized both Massey and MSHA, telling a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing there is enough blame to go around following the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
Byrd said Congress has given MSHA plenty of authority and money, but that such resources are "useless if the enforcement agency is not vigorous about demanding safety in the mines."
In a rare public appearance, the 92-year-old West Virginia Democrat also blasted Massey and scoffed at Blankenship's repeated insistence that Massey puts safety first in its mines.
"I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers," Byrd said.
The hearing, held by a Senate panel that oversees MSHA's budget, provided a dramatic face-to-face confrontation between Blankenship and his company's harshest longtime critic, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts.
While the hearing was titled "Investing in Mine Safety: Preventing Another Disaster," the focus was clearly on Upper Big Branch and its aftermath.
Following a panel of government witnesses, including Main and other regulators, Roberts and Blankenship delivered short statements and took questions from lawmakers. Massey has been a mostly nonunion company since the mid-1980s and has systematically bought up formerly union coal operations -- including Upper Big Branch -- across Southern West Virginia.
Blankenship said his Richmond, Va.-based company has long been an industry safety leader, and flat-out dismissed any suggestions that he or Massey cut corners to increase production.
"Massey does not place profits over safety," Blankenship said. "We never have and we never will. Period."
But Roberts said that, even before Upper Big Branch, 23 miners had died at Massey operations in the last decade, a higher number, Roberts said, than any recorded by other major coal producers.
Blankenship said Massey's numbers are "probably about average," but that "any fatality is unacceptable to us."
Roberts responded, "This isn't average. This is deplorable is what it is."
Questioning Blankenship, Byrd lamented the deaths at Upper Big Branch saying, "Twenty-nine men are now dead. Dead. Dead, simply because they went to work that morning." And Byrd rattled off a long list of statistics about Massey's troubled safety record.