- Managers ordered air to be diverted ahead of inspections
- Miners testify on pressure to ramp up coal production
Massey Energy Co. managers covered up air-flow problems at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine and complained when ventilation issues halted coal production, a miner testified in the trial of former top executive Donald Blankenship.
After being tipped off about safety inspections, Massey supervisors ordered workers to send extra air into sections of the mine slated to be checked, according to Shaun Ellison, who worked in the shaft starting in 2009.
Miners were ordered to “knock holes” in walls designed to keep air moving through the mine to increase the flow into “sections where the inspectors were going,” Ellison told jurors in Charleston, West Virginia, on Tuesday. “When the inspectors left,” the extra air would be re-routed, he said.
Federal prosecutors are using Ellison’s testimony to buttress claims Blankenship, 65, plotted with other executives to subvert safety rules at the mine, located about 30 miles south of Charleston and the site of an April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
Blankenship sought to impede mine inspectors in order to ramp up coal production at all costs, prosecutors said. He’s charged with conspiracy and lying to investors about Massey’s compliance with regulations and may face more than 30 years in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors contend Blankenship created a corporate climate that put profit over safety so he could reap millions in salary and bonuses. Blankenship lawyers countered that the executive launched repeated efforts to eliminate mine hazards and improve the company’s safety record.
Ventilation problems routinely plagued mining crews at Upper Big Branch and forced them to halt efforts to extract high-value coal, Ellison said.
The lack of proper air flow caused miners to shut down diggers “just about daily” over safety concerns, Ellison told jurors. That drew frequent complaints from managers about not meeting production quotas, he added.
Massey supervisors also sought to obscure coal-dust levels at Upper Big Branch by ordering miners to wear monitoring equipment under their work clothes, Ellison said. The miners were told to hang the personal monitors in front of a fresh-air intake device to improve their readings in case inspectors checked them, he said.
Stanley “Goose” Stewart, another miner who was on duty the day of the April 2010 explosion, testified Tuesday that the company’s “culture of silence” forced him to go along with orders to divert air into mine sections ahead of inspections.
“There was an element of fear, intimidation and propaganda at work,” he told jurors. “We knew if we didn’t do it we’d be fired or, in some way, lose our jobs.”
Stewart, who was working in a section of the mine untouched by the blast, broke down in tears when recalling his testimony before Congress about the intimidation Massey workers’ faced.
“I felt the truth needed to be told about why that mine blew up,” Stewart told jurors.
Last week, former Massey executive David Hughart testified Blankenship forced him to operate mines without adequate staffing and threatened to fire him if he didn’t meet production quotas.
Blankenship told mine supervisors in a February 2009 memo that their jobs were “to make money,” Hughart recalled.
“To do this, you must run coal,” Blankenship said in the memo, according to Hughart. “I’m looking to make an example out of somebody and I don’t mean an embarrassment.”
Hughart said the pressure from Blankenship, coupled with a shortage of miners, made it difficult to address safety concerns while keeping up with production demands.
It wasn’t just executives who faced ouster if production fell off. Richard “Smurf” Hutchens, an Upper Big Branch miner, testified Monday he and his crew were told they would be fired if they didn’t extract a certain amount of coal on every shift.
“I was under a lot of pressure,” Hutchens told jurors. “I was threatened they’d fire me for not running enough production.”
Miners frequently had to shut down machines because air flow wasn’t sufficient and a build-up of coal dust created safety hazards, Hutchens added. He quit a month before the fatal 2010 explosion.
The case is U.S. v. Blankenship, 14-cr-00244, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston).