Prosecutors done questioning key witness in ex-coal CEO case

31 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Defense Wants ‘Another Crack’ at Blanchard, Requests to Re-Cross.

“Run coal!” was the signature command Donald Blankenship issued to underlings when he reigned as the fearsome baron of Big Coal in the mines of Appalachia.The prosecution wrapped their redirect examination of former Performance Coal President and Upper Big Branch mine operator Chris Blanchard late Friday afternoon, but the unconventional witness may not be done on the stand just yet.CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A key government witness testified Thursday that his former coal boss thought it was less expensive to pay safety violation fines than take proper precautions, and his company even gave the witness a higher paying job after the deadliest explosion in four decades happened at his mine.

In Charleston federal court Thursday, the prosecution questioned former Massey subsidiary president Christopher Blanchard, as he takes the stand against ex-Massey CEO Don Blankenship under an immunity agreement. It was the worst mining disaster of modern times, laying bare a pattern of lethal neglect and corporate culpability that now grips coal country with the rarest of events — the sight of Mr. Blankenship is charged with lying to investors and securities officials about Massey’s safety record and conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws. Attorney Steven Ruby admitted there was a lot of ground to cover, since Blanchard spent almost five days aiding the defense’s arguments that Blankenship and Massey made safety a chief priority.

Blankenship, one of the industry’s most politically and economically powerful bosses, being brought to answer before a jury of his Appalachian peers about the deaths of Appalachian miners. Blankenship’s lead attorney, Bill Taylor, requested the right to again cross examine Blanchard on a number of issues, the first of which was a host of new evidence introduced during the prosecution’s redirect examination this week. Credit Tom Hindman/Charleston Gazette, via Associated Press In the lead-up to the trial in Charleston, prosecutors convicted four lower ranking executives, establishing a criminal pattern of aggressive neglect and evasion of government rules that repeatedly put miners’ lives at risk. Taylor said Friday the government introduced more than 40 new documents under the witness’s testimony that the defense had not had an opportunity to discuss with Blanchard.

Blankenship’s leadership, production demands trumped safety at Massey Energy, which owned the mine where a fireball of methane gas and coal dust exploded underground. Attorney Steve Ruby responded to the request by saying the defense is free to call Blanchard as their own witness if they wish to have him testify further, but said all of the areas of argument listed by Taylor came as a response to the witness’s cross examination. “It’s often the case that after redirect, the party that conducted the cross examination will be dissatisfied and want another crack at the witness,” Ruby said in court Friday, “but if the redirect deals with what’s been brought in the cross, it does not require a re-cross examination.” On cross examination, Blanchard testified he had not committed any crimes while working as the president of Performance Coal and did not have an unwritten agreement nor understanding with Blankenship to violate safety laws. That testimony directly contradicted Blanchard’s previous testimony, both in his direct examination and in previously sworn testimony given before a grand jury. Because of those statements, Taylor claimed the government had withheld evidence from the defense, evidence that consisted of statements of innocence Blanchard made “over the course of several years” to the government before the trial. Blankenship fretting about an internal memo warning that the company is “plainly cheating” in its required samplings of the coal dust. “This game is about money,” he is heard to say.

They showed that 71 percent of them suffered from black lung, the lethal coal dust affliction — an alarming rate compared with an industry average of 3.2 percent. Ruby finished questioning Blanchard, who ran UBB as president of the Marfork Coal Group, by focusing on the increasing number of safety violations at UBB between 2006-2010. Blankenship is dismissive of black lung, an incurable condition, as “not an issue in this industry that is worth the effort they put into it.” Mr. On Friday morning, Ruby introduced a stack of citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration for “serious and substantial” violations recorded at UBB.

Ruby again pointed to grand jury testimony, in which Blanchard gave a different answer about whether the warning system let underground miners clean up safety violations that would have otherwise been caught. In none of those cases could Blanchard cite examples of discipline for himself or anyone else, contradicting several of the arguments Taylor had tried to make during his marathon cross examination of Blanchard earlier this week.

His trial, whatever the outcome, is a stark reminder that stronger federal laws are still needed to shut down mines that continue to harm workers, and to rein in the “Run coal!” greed that risks their lives. At one point, Ruby referenced the 2006 underground mine fire at Aracoma Coal’s Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, a former Massey mine, that killed two coal miners. He has told defense attorneys that in 2014 he had been faced with what he called “two bad choices”: cooperate with the government, or face prosecution. A version of this editorial appears in print on October 30, 2015, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: The Coal Baron on Trial in Appalachia.

A defense objection kept Ruby from discussing the details of what happened there, but he was able to ask Blanchard about the law changes that followed, including those dealing with belt air. Ruby asked about the limits those law changes put on the use of belt air in mine ventilation. “A justification had to be provided,” Blanchard testified. Blanchard testified Friday that total staffing numbers from those charts included people not working in the mine itself, those not assigned to specific tasks like belt work or contractors who were not full Massey members.

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