Website Review: MasseyCoal.com

    

When the above photograph is the most appealing artwork you can come up with for the home page of your website, you’re either in a really dirty business, or your designer is a little too deep into steampunk.             

While the rest of the nation enjoyed emergent spring this week, it was bleak as usual in the back-country hollows of West Virginia. In fact, it was more horror-filled than usual, as 25 coal miners perished in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by Massey Energy Company.             

I was curious to see how a large corporation such as Massey would handle such a tragedy on its website. Could they forsake the usual self-congratulatory blurbs, the smiling families who benefit from their product, and the thumbnail corporate snapshot (diluted earnings per share — $1.22!) long enough to confront the realities of a disaster? They got around to it, eventually.             

On Wednesday, the day after the disaster, large swaths of the home page were blank, including a section featuring recent commercials. Inexplicably, however, what did remain was a smiling vice president for safety quoted as saying “we are proud of our tradition of developing safety innovations, which we freely share with … the entire industry.” (The entire industry’s response? Thanks, but no thanks). By Thursday, however, the artwork and commercials had returned, along with a click-through about “Careers at Massey” (again, no thanks) and a small box offering deepest condolences to the families who lost loved ones.              

More information on the accident was available in the Newsroom, though you couldn’t help but question the sincerity when CEO Don Blankenship’s mournful regrets were followed with the standard news release boilerplate: “Massey Energy is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia and is included in the S&P 500 Index.” Another news release from a week earlier reflected happier times at Massey, when stock from a previously announced registered public offering was priced at $49.75 per share, with the underwriters granted an option to purchase up to 1,275,000 shares on the same terms and conditions to cover over-allotments, if any. Those were the days.               

In the “About Us” section, there’s a timeline tracing company history back to its founding in 1920 by A.T. Massey, through the reign of Evan Massey in the 1940s and ’50s, W.E. Massey in the ’60s and E. Morgan Massey in the ’70s. Current chairman and first-ever non-Massey president Blankenship took over in the go-go ’90s, engineering reverse spin-offs, joint ventures and strategic alliances while — oh, yeah — trying to remember to occasionally extract coal from the ground. We also learn a little about mining methods in this space. For example, surface mining (known colloquially as “strip mining” or “raping Mother Earth”) accounts for almost half of the company’s coal production, and all that bothersome junk covering up the coal — soil and trees and flora — is called “overburden.”               

Under the “Investors” pulldown, we learn that Massey is the fourth-largest coal company in the U.S. and sold nearly 40 million tons of coal in 2007. That’s the equivalent in weight of nearly half a billion John Denver’s singing “Take Me Home, Country Roads” if he were still alive instead of busy making future coal. The next annual shareholder meeting is tentatively set for May 18 at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., though organizers probably reserve the right to move it a mile under the hotel if press coverage is still intense. There are details of the corporate Mission and Values, as well as a Vision, inspired no doubt by leaking methane. There’s a member of the board of directors named Lady Judge. And for those keeping score at home, Massey’s CUSIP number is 576206-10.        

As part of this section, there’s also a downloadable PDF of Massey’s 2009 Corporate Social Responsibility Report. These documents have recently replaced the glossy annual reports that companies used to produce, and go much farther to project the image of the concerned but heartless conglomerate than raw numbers can ever show.        

The cover claims Massey is “Doing the Right Thing with Energy” and is strewn with pictures of guys with helmets squatting in streams, studying emergency medical techniques and smiling at the camera from deep inside a mountain, happy to be alive (for now). Safety is again a key theme, and it’s noted that Massey had its safest year in 2008, as measured by something called “non-fatal days lost, or NFDL”. A graph shows coal mining’s 4.7 incident rate per 100 full-time workers ranks the industry as slightly better than retail trade. I guess NFDLs make as good a measuring tool as anything, even if numbers could be slightly skewed when killed employees show up for their regular shifts as scheduled (more common than one might think, especially as Sears).       

We also read about the company’s commitment to the community, as displayed at the annual Christmas party where gifts were given to over 3,000 children. There are senior citizen appreciation dinners staged by something called “spousal groups,” which were probably called wives clubs until Massey got politically correct. When a flood struck southern West Virginia in early 2009, Massey was kind enough to recall 20 employees it had recently furloughed and put them to work shoveling mud. And for the Fourth of July last year, none other than the socially responsible Motor City Madman Ted Nugent was brought to coal country as the featured performer at the company picnic.

Within the “Safety” pulldown, we learn that “safety is job one,” that safety is “first,” and that Massey has a culture of safety with reduction of risk through safety innovation and recognition of safety excellence. “This focus on safety gives Massey a competitive advantage, because a safely operated mine is a productive mine.” Safety, safety, safety. The word is used so often that you know it has to be happening. Right? Innovations to safety are noted in a timeline: 1994 — they wear seat belts; 1995 — they design flapper pads (23-skidoo); 1996 — they require strobe lights (groovy); 2002 — they add a submarine safety package, perhaps in anticipation of making coal mining even more dangerous by doing it under the sea. Something called the “Raymond Safety Program” awards points to workers who do safe things. Points can be redeemed for tools, toys, electronics and other items. Wonder how many points you get for simply calling in sick and not showing up at your highly dangerous job.     

Of course these days the “Environment” has to qualify for its own pulldown, and it’s here we read that the company has achieved a 36 percent reduction in citations from state regulatory agencies. One site in particular led the company with a 70 percent reduction in violations from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. At this rate, Massey may actually be complying with laws on a widespread basis by the end of the decade. They’re also spearheading a project to clean up the Little Coal River. It used to be called the Lot of Coal River but the water now has improved from black to a refreshing dark gray.     

I’ve already mentioned some of the Community Events, so I’ll skip this section and go lastly to the Careers area. No actual openings are posted, although I hear there may be a few forthcoming. The benefits actually seem pretty good, and I read elsewhere that an average annual salary of $60,000 for miners far outstrips what other work pays in this depressed area of the country. They have both a pension plan and a 401(k), as well as complete medical, prescription, dental and vision coverage with no monthly premium charged to the workers. That’s a better deal than even I have in my cushy office job. I’d be tempted to head for the hills myself if it weren’t for all those entrapment concerns I so foolishly hold onto.

The Massey website is generally well organized and easy to navigate, containing few of the dead-ends, ratholes or collapsing tunnels you might encounter elsewhere in their organization. I half-expected to click on some link that would take me deep into the bowels of the domain where I’d be ensnared in a dark space from which I was unable to extricate myself. But I was pleased to find I had survived the exploration and emerged much more knowledgeable about the coal industry, and largely in tact.   

Unlike some poor unfortunate souls we’ve read about in the last few days.

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