"What industry must change is our incremental approach to safety improvement because it creates an unintended tolerance to accidents," he said in a 2008 speech to the Utah Coal Association, days after the deaths of nine miners and rescuers at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah. "We need to get to zero."
Over the past year, Massey mines in Coal River communities have been the center of many environmentalists' efforts. The group Climate Ground Zero, based in Rock Creek, has staged tree-sits and other civil disobedience activities at the company's properties.
Activists have also focused on the huge Massey slurry impoundment that towers over Marsh Fork Elementary. Massey recently pledged $1 million to help build a new school.
Last summer, more than 30 demonstrators -- including actress Daryl Hannah, former congressman Ken Hechler, and NASA climate scientist James Hansen -- were arrested at a mountaintop-removal protest outside Massey's Goals Coal preparation plant near the school.
For all the attention mountaintop removal gets, underground mining still generates more than half -- about 59 percent last year -- of West Virginia's total coal production.
Many environmentalists say they don't oppose underground mining, even as they push for a ban on mountaintop removal.
When asked whether that position has changed in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster, Coal River Mountain Watch director Judy Bonds said it hasn't.
Bonds said her group advocates for responsible underground mining.
This disaster could shed light on the coal industry's impacts on communities, she said.
"Unfortunately, it takes disasters for people to look closely at a situation," Bonds said.
To her, a major issue with the coal industry is a lack of other employment options in the areas it dominates.
With mechanization in surface and underground mines, total coal-mining employment in West Virginia has plummeted from more than 55,000 in 1980 to a little more than 21,000, according to the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.
But in places like Raleigh, Boone and Logan counties, mining jobs remain the best -- and some of the only good-paying -- work around.
In fact, the West Virginia Coal Association puts the average coal miner's pay at about $62,500 a year. That's triple West Virginia's per capita income. With frequent overtime, miners can earn much more. Their health-care and other benefits are significantly better than those that come with most Appalachian jobs.
Near the Coal River Mountain Watch office in Whitesville, storefronts stand shuttered along W.Va. 3.
The group's office manager, Junior Walk -- a 20-year-old Eunice native whose father works in mining -- said the mines are the only option for many young men like him.
"That's the only way that these guys straight out of high school can raise a family," he said.
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report. Reach Alison Knezevich at alis...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.