Prosecutors Done Questioning Key Witness in Ex-Coal CEO Case

31 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Blankenship prosecution begins reclaiming its witness during redirect.

“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. The defense brought into evidence a number of citations, notes and reprimands showing the safety concerns of upper level management at Massey Energy, but Assistant U.S. 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. He also said during his testimony that Don Blankenship, the company’s former CEO, “didn’t do anything to dissuade” the understanding about violations at UBB, that it was “the cost of doing business.” During cross examination, Blanchard testified that he believed his boss did care about safety at the mine, and that Blankenship never specifically directed anyone to violate any 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.

But Ruby asked Blanchard if he knew that a conspiracy didn’t have to come in the form of a formal agreement, but can be part of an unspoken understanding. He pointed out that laws on belt air ventilation, which is airflow around and over conveyor belts, changed after a 2006 “safety incident” at Aracoma Alma Mine. 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. Two miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Jan. 19, 2006, Logan County mine incident, after a conveyor belt caught fire and filled the fresh air passageways with smoke. Blankenship’s lead attorney Bill Taylor asked Judge Berger to allow the defense to ask Blanchard additional questions next week under re-cross examination, something Berger hasn’t allowed in the trial up until this time.

Blanchard testified last November that if the mine had been better staffed and if production goals were lowered, the number of violations could have been greatly reduced. That testimony directly contradicted Blanchard’s previous testimony, both in his direct examination and in previously sworn testimony given before a grand jury. Prosecutors previously showed evidence that Blankenship rejected an air shaft that would have provided proper ventilation for three sections of the mine. He agreed with that statement Thursday, as well as the fact that Blankenship had the power to make the changes that could have prevented those violations. 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 also said even though Blankenship received a daily report with all these S&S citations, he never sent out a response, made a phone call or ordered discipline for those who failed to comply. Blanchard said he couldn’t answer the question, but agreed that profit numbers were no reason for a company to commit preventable violations of safety laws. 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. 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. 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. Ruby called into question Blanchard’s testimony that he was told by an inspector during his work with another mine company, that underground miners could be given advance warning once the inspector had crossed onto the mine property.

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. Blanchard was reluctant to agree that his attorneys prepared him for questions the defense attorney would ask, but he did admit that his attorneys prepared him for cross examination.

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