Long a symbol of Richmond's Old South gentility, the Jefferson Hotel was transformed into an armed camp Tuesday morning.
Massey Energy, the embattled Richmond-based coal company under attack for the deaths of 29 miners in West Virginia April 5, was holding its annual shareholders meeting here.
Outside the hotel, several hundred protestors, including students and members of the United Mine Workers of America, chanted and waved signs proclaiming “52 Miners Dead in 10 Years.”
Another stated, “Don Must Go,” referring to Don Blankenship, Massey's chief executive and chairman whose in-your-face management style has made his firm a lightning rod for such wide-ranging issues as miner safety, mountaintop removal and global warming.
Demonstrators stayed on sidewalks across the street from the hotel on orders of the Richmond Police Department. “We've established a safety zone,” a police lieutenant said. Police on motorcycles and three horses stood by, ready for trouble.
Inside the cavernous hotel lobby, several dozen hotel security people plus police officers, some with big bundles of plastic for handcuffs stuffed in their cargo pants, stood at key spots. Four reporters had been herded into the Empire Room to listen to speeches piped from Massey's annual meeting. Coffee urns and plates of pastries, provided by Massey, stood in the room.
The meeting itself was at the Grand Ballroom a short distance away. Unfailingly polite Richmond police officers and hotel security allowed a reporter to approach the desk where Massey workers and hired consultants worked admissions to the meeting then in progress.
When the reporter identified himself, a woman in a black dress said firmly: “No media. I am sorry.” When asked more questions, she repeated: “There's no media up here.” Several Massey annual reports lay on a table and the reporter asked for one. “You can get them online,” the woman said. “Now leave.”
The reporter asked for her name and she refused. He looked at a young man with a Massey nametag saying Andrew Hampton. When the reporter started writing down the name, the man quickly covered his nametag with his hand. Then a policeman came to escort the reporter from the area.
Back in the Empire Room, Blankenship's speech was being piped in. Referring to the April 5 disaster, he said, “We will report the event that has brought great sadness to us all.”
Noting that the firm “has made the wives and children of the miners financially secure,” he said that his company “has gone beyond what is legally required.” He also said that since 1991, the year before he took over at the coal firm, there has been a 90 percent reduction in the accident rate at the company's mines, which are in West Virginia, Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.
Shareholders rebuffed demands from activists and institutional investors that three Massey directors, including company president Baxter Phillips, not be reelected. Two non-binding shareholders resolutions did pass, including one to have its entire board stand for elections each year and that directors be elected by a voting majority.
Financially, Massey did well in the 2009 recession. Coal revenues were $2.3 billion for 2009, just down from $2.5 billion in 2008. Demand is soaring by the fast-growing “BRIC” (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries for both steam and metallurgical coal so Massey is well-positioned for more growth. As for environmental issues such as its controversial mountaintop removal practices, Blankenship said that the firm's environmental violations were down 22 percent last year.
When it came time for questions from the shareholders, Massey announced that it was cutting off the electronic feed to the reporters in the Empire Room. That's an unusual step because most public corporations allow live Q&A sessions at shareholders meetings.
The woman in the black desk and another blonde woman who identified herself as a Massey Energy employee dodged a reporter's questions about why the Q&A was cut off. The blonde woman said, “We said it would be in an investor's report last week,” offering no further explanation.
Back outside, UMWA members continued their shouting and chanting and screamed each time a passing car flashed its lights. Massey's anti-union policies make it one of coal companies with the fewest union members.
One UMWA member, Jerry Massie who drove from Fayetteville, W.Va., for the protest, said that Massey's history “is to stay behind a veil of secrecy.” He noted that “it's unbelievable ... the things that go on at Massey mines,” including the one where the disaster took place. “If Don Blankenship has his way,” the miner added, “we'll go back to the 1940s.”