Ex-Massey CEO Blankenship Downplayed Miner Black-Lung Threat

  • Statement on phone call was secretly recorded by executive
  • Jurors hearing evidence in Blankenship's West Virginia trial

Ex-Massey Energy Chief Executive Officer Donald Blankenship downplayed the threat of miners developing black-lung disease in shafts choked with coal dust, jurors in the executive’s criminal trial heard in a recorded phone call.

Blankenship, who frequently criticized regulators, dismissed efforts by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in its 2009 campaign to cut down on black lung, a respiratory condition that makes it difficult to breathe. The executive secretly recorded some phone conversations with subordinates and others.

“The fact is black lung is not the problem in this industry that is worth the effort they are putting into it,” Blankenship told an unidentified man about the government’s campaign. Mine safety officials say the disease has been a contributing factor in the injuries and deaths of more than 76,000 miners since 1968.

Federal prosecutors in Charleston, West Virginia, played the call to buttress charges that the former CEO plotted to disregard safety measures and set the stage for a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. The government played the conversation Tuesday to open the second week of trial testimony.

Blankenship, 65, is accused of scheming with other Massey officials to subvert safety rules and impede mine inspectors. He’s also charged with lying to investors about the company’s compliance with regulations.

District Judge

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger ruled last week that jurors could hear some recordings of Blankenship’s phone calls turned over by Alpha Natural Resources Inc., a rival coal company that acquired Massey in 2011 for $7.1 billion. The executive has never said why he decided to tape the calls.

The safety agency initiated an effort to cut down on black lung among miners in 2009 and issued a rule in 2014 requiring mine operators to reduce concentrations of coal dust in their shafts.

While Blankenship criticized the government’s black-lung efforts, the executive can be heard on another recording saying the agency plays a valuable role in keeping operators focused on safety issues.

Blankenship questioned whether “we’d blow ourselves up” without inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Over the years, he had routinely criticized the agency in public for setting up regulatory roadblocks to coal production.

‘Dumb Things’

“I know MSHA is bad, but I tell you what, we do some dumb things,” Blankenship said on the call. “I don’t know what we’d do if we didn’t have them.”

In another recording, the executive is heard saying a confidential memo outlining safety problems at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, site of the 2010 blast, would be “a terrible document” to be turned over in litigation, prosecutors said earlier.

Prosecutors introduced the recordings into evidence through the testimony of Sandra Davis, Blankenship’s former administrative assistant, who handed his e-mails and memos for eight years.

Eric Delinsky, one of Blankenship’s lawyers, questioned whether the former CEO ever showed disregard for safety regulations while in Davis’s presence.

“For eight years, you never saw Mr. Blankenship instruct anyone to violate a safety law?” Delinsky asked the former administrative assistant. “That’s correct,” she answered.

Prosecutors also introduced a memo sent to Blankenship about safety violations identified in the Upper Big Branch mine in April 2010 -- the same month the fatal explosion rocked the facility.

It showed MSHA inspectors had uncovered more than 300 violations during the year’s first four months that exposed Massey to more than $546,000 in potential fines.

Earlier in the case, the government introduced 14 citations Massey received for unsafe conditions at the Upper Big Branch mine over a two-year period starting 2008.

The case is U.S. v. Blankenship, 14-cr-00244, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston).

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