A group of Democratic legislators is backing a bill that would force the state treasurer to sell off all pension investments in Massey Energy Corp., the coal giant whose safety and environmental record has been under scrutiny since an April mine explosion killed 29 men.
"Massey has been a bad actor, and it has been a bad investment," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who is one of the bill's primary sponsors. "It would probably take only about 5 minutes to divest the state's money from Massey and invest it with a more responsible company."
The state employee pension plan's investment in Massey is about $17.4 million in stock, out of a total plan portfolio of $68.7 billion.
Last month, State Treasurer Janet Cowell joined with pension plan administrators from other states to urge institutional investors to vote against the reelection of current members of the Massey board, which they said had steered the company to put profits over safety and environmental stewardship.
In the past 10 years, 52 Massey miners have died in accidents while the company has raked up massive state and federal fines. The company accrued $12.9 million in fines during 2009, prior to the Big Branch disaster in West Virginia earlier this year.
The company also engages in the widely criticized practice of mountain top removal mining, in which explosives and heavy machinery are used to cut away mountain peaks to get at the coal underneath, filling in the valleys and streams below with the rubble.
Despite the efforts of Cowell and others, the Massey board members were reelected even as the company's stock price has plummeted. Though the state treasurer has the authority to order the sale of Massey stock on her own, the legislators said approval of the proposed bill would send a stronger message.
"If we do this in North Carolina, it'll provide a precedent for other states to do the same thing," said Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat who helped led a similar effort to divest state funds from Sudan due to the genocide in Darfur.