Massey Energy Co., owner of the West Virginia coal mine where 29 miners were killed three weeks ago, accused unions on Monday of spreading a "big lie" that the company had traded safety for profit.
Organized labor hit back, charging that Massey's safety record was inferior to most other major coal companies.
"My anger is centered around the allegation that we traded safety for profit," Bobby Inman, a member of the company's board, told a news conference when asked if miners' safety was compromised by use of nonunion workers.
"Where did this big lie come from?" he asked. "It was first mentioned by a plaintiff's lawyer, then the president of the (labor federation) AFL-CIO, then the head of the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) and even the president of the United States."
On April 15, President Obama placed primary blame for the disaster on Massey and called for better mine oversight nationwide to prevent more accidents. He did not repeat that statement at a memorial service on Sunday for the victims.
"Mr Inman can say whatever he likes," UMWA spokesman Phil Smith told Reuters. "The big truth is that 52 people have been killed on Massey property since 2000.
"No other coal company has had even half that," he said, adding that of the 18 U.S. coal miners killed on the job last year, only one was a union member.
Rob McGarrah, legal counsel for the AFL-CIO labor organization, repeated the same statistics.
"The facts speak for themselves, federal and state investigations are under way," McGarrah said.
"This is a deliberate attempt to reframe the issue as a union-management fight."
Speaking at a news conference in Charleston, West Virginia, Inman dismissed calls by shareholders to remove Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship, whom he said had borne the brunt of criticism for the Upper Big Branch accident. Firing the CEO is "not in the cards," he said.
The board gave Blankenship a vote of confidence because the executive had received "a disproportionate amount of public attention," Inman said, and calls for his removal came from shareholders representing only 2 percent of Massey's stock.
"I am constantly being asked why I don't fire him," said Inman, a retired naval admiral. "That's the last thing you do in a crisis."
Another director, Stan Suboleski, who is a mining engineer, acknowledged that last year the Upper Big Branch mine had "an inordinate number" of D Orders -- the most serious violation cited by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. In fact, there were 47 D Orders from April to October last year.
Massey assigned two safety professionals to work full time in the UBB mine, he said, and from November 1 through April 4, there were only 7 D Orders. In addition, the mine had no lost-time accidents in the first three months of this year.
On the day of the fatal blast, Suboleski said three foremen found no hazards during pre-shift tests required by law.
Methane gas measurements ranged from zero to 0.3 percent, he said. Safety precautions at the mine would have automatically shut down operations if there was a methane reading of 1 percent.
MSHA had required Massey to change the ventilation system at UBB. The company complied, but Suboleski said the changes made the ventilation in this area more complex.
In addition, he said, "the volume of fresh air to the face was significantly reduced during this period and ... our engineers resisted making the changes, in one instance to the point of shutting down production for two days, before agreeing to MSHA's ventilation plan changes."
MSHA officials were not immediately available for comment.
Suboleski said shortly before the April 5 explosion, the air volume on the longwall (coalface) was measured at about twice the minimum required under mining laws.
"I am mystified at what occurred on April 5, but something very unexpected happened at UBB when they were changing shifts," he said.
Asked when investigators might be able to enter the mine, Blankenship said he could not speculate since MSHA was in charge.
"Once the facts are known, we will enact corrective processes at Massey immediately and encourage regulation and laws focused on eliminating the chance of a reoccurrence," he said.
Massey stock was down 72 cents, or 1.62 percent, at $43.73 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
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