October 23, 2015 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

The criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship went into its third week. Jurors heard testimony from Upper Big Branch (UBB) coal miners Stanley “Goose” Stewart, Richard “Smurf” Hutchens, and Scott Halstead, UBB superintendent Rick Hodge, and MSHA investigator Keith McElroy, among others. At the end of this third week of the trial, the 15 jurors have heard the testimony of 21 witnesses. Thanks to the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Ken Ward Jr. and Joel Ebert, I can select and share some of my favorite quotes from this week’s proceedings.

Performance Coal president Chris Blanchard, who was granted immunity in exchange for his testimony against Blankenship, said

“I believe there was an understanding that it was less money to pay the fines for the safety violations than the cost of preventing the violations.”

The US attorneys have been building the case that Blankenship was intimately involved in the day-to-day operations of UBB. They’ve heard how Blankenship insisted on receiving production reports as frequently as every 30 minutes and faxed to his home on weekends. Ward writes that Blanchard was asked about handwritten notes he received from Blankenship. Blanchard told the jury:

“He was a micro-manager.”

Blanchard was asked by the prosecutor how much money he earned annually at the time he was responsible for UBB. He responded that he made about $400,000 a year, including bonuses.

“Geeze”

was how the Gazette-Mail’s Ebert describes the audible reaction from an audience member to Blanchard’s response. [The average weekly wage is $736 in Raleigh County, WV (where the UBB mine was located,) or about $38,000 per year.]

The question of whether Don Blankenship was ever in the UBB mine came up this week. Ward reminds us what Blankenship’s attorney said in his October 7 opening statement:

“You may be interested to know that Don Blankenship was never in the UBB mine.”

But when coal miner Scott Halstead was asked about any visits by Blankenship to UBB, Halstead replied,

“…He [Halstead] was assigned to a crew that was sent to ‘dress up’ the longwall section. ‘…There was one occasion when I helped prepare the area for his [Blankenship’s] arrival.'”

Coal miner “Goose” Stewart said:

“Yes, I saw him, he visited the longwall at least once while I was on, when I was on shift.”

And,

“I saw him on the mine property often. It would have been back ’96, ’97, for union organizing drives, and he was there on a regular basis, having meetings with the miners.”

Having met “Goose,” I’ve no doubt he remembers vividly Blankenship’s schemes to convince employees they didn’t need a union. Blankenship’s website, the”American Competitionist,” blames the “plight of our country” on “the union,” “the liberals of the media” among others.

The Justice Department’s case against Blankenship involves conspiring to violate mine safety regulations and making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regarding the company’s compliance with safety regulations. Blankenship was Massey Energy’s CEO in April 2010 when a massive coal dust explosion rocked the company’s Upper Big Branch mine. The victims included 29 coal miners and the families and friends they left behind.

My favorite quotes from Week 1 are here and from Week 2 are here.

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