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NPR NEWS INVESTIGATION: Coverage of mine safety in the U.S. after an explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia killed 29 workers.

Massey-Alpha Coal Mine Merger Approved By Shareholders

The shareholders of coal mine giants Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources overwhelmingly approved a merger this morning, despite challenges from some large institutional investors and an ongoing controversy about Massey executives moving into the management structure of the merged company.

More than 90 percent of the shares in each company were used to cast "yes" votes for the merger, according to Alpha Natural Resources spokesman Ted Pile. Shareholders of each company met separately in a hotel in Kingston, Tenn., to consider the takeover. Massey is now being absorbed by Alpha.

Massey Energy had become one of the most infamous names in the coal mining industry in the wake of last year's deadly explosion at the company's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Twenty nine mine workers died in the blast, making it the worst coal mine disaster in this country in 40 years.

A report on the disaster two weeks ago severely criticized Massey for a corporate "culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm." A federal criminal investigation continues. Two low-level Massey managers have been charged so far, but not for anything directly related to the disaster.

The combined companies will continue with the Alpha name and will be mostly run by the existing Alpha board of directors and executives.

But the merger has drawn criticism from mine safety advocates, Upper Big Branch investigators and members of Congress because Alpha is moving into its management ranks several Massey executives and managers who played key roles at the Upper Big Branch mine and managed the corporate culture blamed for the explosion. One of the Massey executives, Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins, has been tapped to help integrate Alpha's safety program in the merged company.

[New material added starting here at 12:15 p.m. ET.]

As Ken Ward at the Charleston Gazette reports, Alpha has a better safety record but still has safety issues at its mines:

"While Alpha has [not had] a huge disaster like Upper Big Branch, the company narrowly avoided such an incident in May 2009, when seven workers were trapped underground for more than 24 hours by a mine flood in Mingo County, [W. Va.]. Federal regulators cited the company for improper maintenance of outside drainage systems that allowed heavy rain to inundate the underground tunnels.

"And in January 2007, Alpha's Brooks Run subsidiary was cited for major safety violations following a roof collapse that killed two workers at an underground mine in McDowell County. More recently, an Alpha contractor admitted lying to federal investigators about training practices at that same operation, the Cucumber Mine. And earlier this year, another man pleaded guilty to lying about having a foreman's license when performing safety examinations at Alpha's Poplar Ridge Mine in Webster County.

"Alpha's mines, like Massey's, are also non-union."

[Original post resumes.]

The deal is valued at $7.1 billion dollars and results in the world's third largest producer of metallurgical coal. Massey was targeted for the takeover because it owns large deposits of "met coal," as it's called, which is used to make steel. Met coal is in high demand and fetches high prices due to international shortages blamed on flooding in Australia and a building boom in China.

Alpha now grows to 14,000 employees in more than 180 mines in Appalachia. The combined companies have 5 billion tons of coal reserves.

Update at 12:25 p.m. ET. CEO Crutchfield On Safety:

Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield tells The Associated Press that, "Our goal is to run the combined company in the same manner we've operated Alpha. ... We'll see improved safety performance, improved levels of environmental stewardship."

Crutchfield is trying to focus attention on Alpha's future and not Massey's troubled past. "Judge us by what happens from this day forward," he told AP.

NPR has an interview scheduled with Crutchfield later this afternoon.

Update at 3:05 p.m. ET. A Victim's Father Speaks Out:

After the merger, "nothing's going to change," says Gary Quarles. "The name will change and that's all.

Quarles is a 34-year veteran of coal mining and spent the last nine years at a Massey mine in West Virginia. His son, Gary Wayne Quarles, died at Upper Big Branch.

He says of the Massey executives who will be moving to Alpha that they only care about production, and "don't know nothing about safety. ... I don't expect Alpha to do anything different than what Massey's been doing."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.
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