CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Alpha Natural Resources' buyout of troubled Massey Energy creates a coal giant that will rank among the top three in the country, have significant operations in several major coal basins, and dominate the U.S. market for coal that is used to make steel.
But will Alpha reverse a culture at Massey that critics of the company say frequently put coal production ahead of worker safety and environmental protections?
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts -- among Massey's most vocal longtime critics -- certainly hopes so.
"Massey had come to represent all that was wrong with the coal industry, whether it be safety and health issues, environmental issues or simple respect for its workers, their families and the communities where they live," Roberts said. "While Alpha inherits those problems from Massey, one hopes that Alpha recognizes that sorry record and has a plan in place to move swiftly toward resolving many of those issues."
The Alpha-Massey deal, announced Saturday, creates a coal giant worth $15 billion, with the second-largest private coal reserves in the country, and likely to take over a slot as the second- or third-largest producer in the nation.
Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha plans to keep its own team of top executives and its own board of directors, but the plans for operational management of regional units and individual mines has not been announced.
Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said his company planned to introduce its own safety, environmental and production programs -- under the title "Running Right" -- at Massey's operations.
"From a safety perspective, 'Running Right' means engaging all of our employees to work toward the common goal of returning every employee home safely every day," Crutchfield said. "From an environmental perspective, 'Running Right' means a collective commitment on the part of our entire workforce to not only remain in compliance with, but often exceed regulatory environmental standards in leaving the environment in a condition that is at least as good or better than we found it."
During the same call, outgoing Massey CEO Baxter Phillips said the two companies found their corporate cultures "to be extremely compatible with each other" and would work together to "reduce regulatory impediments" on the industry.
Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, said he's not sure what Phillips -- who is expected to become an Alpha consultant of some sort -- is talking about.
"I don't think the regulatory impediments are as strong as they should be in the first place," Lovett said. "That certainly is code for 'We don't want to protect the environment.'"
Massey's history dates back to 1920, and the company has been operating as a publicly traded firm since 2000 under the controversial leadership of CEO Don Blankenship. Following a strike in the mid-1980s, Massey has operated mostly with non-union workers and has been at odds with the UMW.
Safety advocates and environmental groups have long complained about Massey's practices, and its subsidiaries have admitted several times to criminal violations of both safety and water pollution laws.