The criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship went into its fifth week. Among others, the jurors heard from a veteran federal mine safety inspector, and a former Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) ventilation expert who went to work for Blankenship at Massey Energy following his retirement from the agency.
Thanks to the reporting by the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. and Joel Ebert, I present some of my favorite quotes from this week’s proceeding in the federal courtroom:
The prosecution put veteran mine safety inspector Harold Hayhurst on the witness stand to explain why advance notices of an inspection are against the law:
“It hampers your inspection. You don’t get to see the mine as it actually is when you are not there.”
A star witnesses for the prosecution, Bill Ross, spent several days on the witness stand. Ross worked for MSHA for 32 years, and as Ward notes, Ross went to work for Massey Energy after he retired from MSHA. Ward explains:
“Under questions from Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby, Ross testified about safety warnings he gave to Blankenship and other Massey officials in June 2009. ‘We were getting a lot of violations and I was concerned about it. Normally, a mine that has a lot of serious violations, it has a lot of injuries, fatalities.’”
In his second day on the witness stand, Ward writes that Bill Ross:
“…had hoped his warnings about serious safety problems would be shared with all Massey employees as part of a wholesale effort to improve the company’s performance. …[he] choked up on the witness stand….
“‘I thought it would be shared with everyone,’ Ross testified, when asked about a follow up memo that recommended reforms be made at Massey less than a year before the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine. ‘I never thought to keep it private and confidential.’ Ross though read to jurors from emails in which then-Massey lawyer Stephanie Ojeda told him to mark each page of his memo as ‘confidential.’”
Later that day, Ward writes:
“Ross testified about several emails and memos in which he expressed disappointment with Massey’s progress to reduce violations. In one February 2010 email to then Massey lawyer Stephanie Ojeda, wrote Ross, ‘We are fighting a losing battle.’ In an accompanying memo, Ross said that the new hazard elimination program ‘shows no sign of acceptance’ among Massey foremen. ‘We continued to set up our mines to fail,’ Ross wrote.”
Besides testimony from witnesses, the Charleston Gazette reporters have been keeping us up-to-date on the dueling motions filed by the prosecution and defense teams. On Friday, November 6, presiding US district judge Irene Berger heard a defense motion related to an allegation that an MSHA employee destroyed documents related to the UBB mine. The motion includes an assertion about what a secretary who worked in an MSHA district office located in Mt. Hope, West Virginia observed. Ward writes:
“Mrs. Chambers specifically recalled Mr. Mackowiak walking out of the Mt. Hope facility carrying trash bags filled with documents. Mrs. Chambers made it clear that Mr. Mackowiak’s document destruction and actions from the file room and map room were questionable, at best. She told me that a lot of the documents we saved were gone.”
The MSHA employees deny the allegations in sworn statements and testimony.
The trial will resume on Monday, Nov. 9.