Don Blankenship, president and CEO of Massey Energy, the nation’s fourth largest coal-producing company, speculated that U.S. coal could fuel the future of civilization worldwide in a safe and environmentally friendly way if “truth and not politics” are used to develop a path for the nation’s future energy development.

“American coal will reduce the need for young men and women to die for oil in the Middle East,” Blankenship said to a crowd of about 160 people gathered for the opening reception of the 2006 Bluefield Coal Symposium sponsored by the Greater Bluefield Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

The man who is arguably one of the state’s most non-political figures boiled some rather complex ideas into layman’s terms to explain how coal can fuel the advancement of civilization to “make the world peaceful,” but only in a context where the approach to safety and environmental issues is “based on facts ... not politics.”

Blankenship was off sync with his accompanying PowerPoint presentation, but the friendly audience didn’t seem to care that his remarks didn’t necessarily follow the outline on the large screen set up to the speaker’s right. He told the group they should be “proud coal is an anchor energy” and said that coal produces the “cheap electricity that builds prosperity.”

He spoke of some of the things Massey is doing to address safety at its coal mines, including requiring coal miners to have reflective tape on their clothing, deflectors on underground mining equipment to guard them against injuries in a roof fall, and enclosed operating areas on bulldozers to safeguard operators from being trapped in the equipment.

“When it comes to improving safety, the most critical ingredient is the truth,” Blankenship said. He admonished federal and state regulatory agencies from placing the focus on dust measurement.

“Dust measurement doesn’t solve problems,” he said. “U.S. technology is too busy taking dust samples and pushing wars to keep the oil flowing.”

Bill Reid, symposium chairman, asked what coal industry leaders can do to make the industry safer. Blankenship responded that said that the industry needs “to take out a blank sheet of paper” and list the safety regulations that work in underground coal mines. He said that at this point, “we have a hodge-podge of laws,” and that the industry can take a proactive role in shaping a new system “that proves we’re concerned about safety.”

Marshall Miller asked Blankenship to share his views on the need for better “quantification” of the state’s coal reserves. Blankenship responded that Massey has 6.5 billion tons of reserves, but noted that it is “sad” that the nation is “willing to send children to Iraq to fight a war, but not willing to issue a (permit for) a valley fill.”

Former Bluefield Mayor Edwin Elliott asked Blankenship if he thinks there will be a change in the state Legislature after this election.

“I’m betting millions of dollars on it,” Blankenship responded. He then went on to give his opinion of the state’s political developments during the past 76 years and finished that off with his observation that West Virginia has “the lowest average income and the highest incidence of child abuse.” He said that with the state’s “gift” of abundant coal reserves, it ought to take advantage of that gift.

“I don’t know how anyone can argue that we don’t need the change,” he said.

Blankenship said the focus needs to be on “the people’s whole environment” and not a single aspect of the environment. He said that the state government doesn’t realize that the customers of big coal companies are “the state’s customers, too.”

“He’s right on target,” Randy Deason said. “Charleston’s got to realize that the coal industry is the state’s industry, too.” Deason is vice chairman of the Bluefield Chamber of Commerce’s economic enhancement division.

Tom Hall, chairman of the Bluefield Chamber board of directors, introduced Blankenship, and Charlie Peters, chairman of the biennial Bluefield Coal Show, gave a history of the show. The symposium will resume at 8 a.m., today at the Bluefield Holiday Inn with a presentation on “Mine Safety — The Sago Accident.”

Bill Archer writes for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

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