Ex-Massey Executive Tells Jury Blankenship Knew of Mine's Risk

  • Executive testifies of CEO's push for production over safety
  • Testimony comes during Donald Blankenship's criminal trial

Ex-Massey Energy CEO Donald Blankenship accepted safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine as the cost of speeding up coal production, a former executive told a West Virginia jury.

Blankenship was aware miners routinely ran afoul of federal regulations while extracting high-value coal from the mine, the site of a 2010 explosion that killed 29 workers, Chris Blanchard, president of the Massey unit that oversaw the site, testified Thursday.

Blanchard, who wasn’t charged in connection with the mine explosion, got immunity from prosecutors in exchange for his testimony against Blankenship. He told jurors in Charleston that the former chief executive understood “it was cheaper to pay the fines than to correct all the violations.”

The 65-year-old Blankenship is accused of plotting with other executives to ramp up coal production by subverting safety rules at the mine, located about 30 miles south of Charleston. 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.

In his defense, the coal baron’s lawyers have pointed to evidence showing he launched repeated efforts to eliminate mine hazards and improve the company’s safety record at Upper Big Branch prior to the fatal blast.

Blanchard’s testimony comes after a government inspector told jurors on Wednesday safety features on mining equipment being used in the blast zone weren’t working.

Keith McElroy, a Mine Safety and Health Administration employee, said his inspection of mining equipment four months after the explosion found water sprayers on a digger were clogged or broken. Those sprayers are used to suppress flammable coal dust and sparks that can lead to a blast.

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

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