Massey Adviser Says He Warned of Danger Months Before Upper Big Branch Blast

By George Hohmann and Jef Feeley | November 5, 2015

Former Massey Energy Co. Chief Executive Officer Donald Blankenship was warned about pervasive safety problems at his company’s mining operations 10 months before a fatal explosion killed 29 men, a retired government mine inspector told a West Virginia jury.

Bill Ross said he was hired to do a safety review of Massey’s mines and provided the company with a list of shortcomings in a June 2009 report. Among his concerns were buildups of explosive coal dust because of poor ventilation in the shafts, according to court filings.

Federal prosecutors accuse Blankenship, 65, of plotting with other executives to subvert safety rules at the mine, located about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Charleston. The April 2010 explosion was the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than 30 years.

One of Massey’s in-house lawyers e-mailed a summary of Ross’s findings to Blankenship on June 25, 2009, and the former CEO warned subordinates that Ross’s report should be kept confidential, according to the government’s evidence in the case.

“It’s bad because if we had a fatal today, it would be a terrible document to be in discovery,” Blankenship said on a tape of a June 29, 2009, phone call, referring to a legal requirement of producing relevant documents ahead of a trial.

The government contends a push by Blankenship and other Massey managers to cut corners on ventilation and other safety issues allowed a buildup of coal dust that ignited and exploded at the Upper Big Branch mine. The former CEO’s defense lawyers counter that miners hit a hidden pocket of natural gas, sparking the fatal explosion.

Improve Record

In his defense, the coal baron’s lawyers have pointed to evidence showing he repeatedly tried to eliminate mine hazards and improve the company’s safety record at Upper Big Branch.

Ross told jurors on Wednesday that he was surprised Blankenship and other Massey officials tagged his safety report as confidential because he was hired to help the company find ways to cut down on violations of mining regulations.

“I thought it would be shared with just about everyone at Massey to get a handle” on the rising number of safety violations, the retired Mining Safety and Health Administration official said. He testified that he specialized in analyzing mine-ventilation issues while at the agency.

“I thought good things were going to happen,” Ross testified about his report. “I thought they were serious and would take steps to change. So, I was happy about that. It would be better all-around for the company and for MSHA. We wouldn’t have to fight with MSHA or blame them.”

In his report, summarized for Blankenship by in-house lawyer Stephanie Ojeda, Ross warned that MSHA inspectors considered Massey to be “an outlaw firm” that didn’t take safety concerns seriously and repeatedly failed to follow through on vows to improve.

Repeat Violations

“Massey has a worse track record than many other companies,” Ojeda noted in her summary of Ross’s report. “The inspectors continue to find repeat violations; Massey never improves. This leads inspectors to conclude Massey doesn’t care.”

Ross found Massey’s approach to mining in some shafts focused on extracting high-dollar coal quickly and accepting violations as a cost of doing business. At the time, the type of coal being extracted at Upper Big Branch had a high per-ton price tag.

“The attitude at Massey is if you can get the footage, we can pay the fines,” Ojeda noted in her summary of Ross’s report, referring to mining a prescribed number of feet of ore during a shift.

Ross, who still must face cross-examination by Blankenship’s lawyers, is expected to be the government’s final witness in its case against the executive.

The case is U.S. v. Blankenship, 14-cr-00244, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston).

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