In ex-coal CEO's trial, government witness testifies on key, confidential safety assessment

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A key government witness began testifying Tuesday about his once-confidential scathing review of safety under his former coal company’s CEO — guidance that the witness provided to top management less than a year before the deadliest mine explosion in four decades.

In Charleston federal court Tuesday, former Massey Energy safety official William Ross took the witness stand in the criminal trial of ex-Massey CEO Don Blankenship.

Ross joined Massey in 2008 after spending more than three decades working for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. At Massey upper management’s request, he spelled out concerns with the company’s safety record. He relied on responses from Massey workers at the numerous classes he taught, among other observations.

“We were getting a lot of violations, and I was concerned about it,” Ross said Tuesday. “Normally a mine that has a lot of serious violations, it has a lot of injuries, fatalities.”

On Tuesday, Ross attested to the June 2009 summary of his guidance. He observed that Massey workers had an attitude that if they mined enough coal, they were allowed to break the law and the company could pay the fine. The memo said mines were understaffed and miners undertrained, to the point that mine foremen would walk by a violation without recognizing it. The memo said many at the company didn’t take federal regulators seriously, made promises to them that were often not kept, and Massey, in turn, had no integrity with mine safety officials.

The document clearly grabbed Blankenship’s attention, as he indicated in June 2009 phone conversations he secretly recorded. Blankenship said the document is “highly confidential, because I really don’t know what to do about it.”

“It’s bad,” Blankenship said in one of several calls previously played for jurors. “Because, it’s like, for example, if there was a fatal today or if we had one, it would be a terrible document to be in discovery.”

Blankenship could face up to 30 years in prison on charges of conspiring to break mine safety laws at Upper Big Branch Mine and lying to financial regulators and investors about company safety. The southern West Virginia mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 men.

Defence attorneys have contended that Ross was actually the opposite of a whistleblower, since upper management ordered his safety review.

They also have unsuccessfully tried multiple times to block jurors from seeing all or part of the memo. On Tuesday, Judge Irene Berger dismissed more of their objections.

Some excerpts of the memo attest to what one former Upper Big Branch miner, Stanley “Goose” Stewart, previously testified about a “code of silence” existing at Massey.

“Bill was told by one class attendee: try to do things right, I’ll get fired,” the memo says. “I just keep my mouth shut and do what I am told.”

Prosecutors ended Tuesday by having Ross read a portion of the memo that warned about what could happen if improvements weren’t made.

“Sooner or later, we will pay the price, especially if there is a serious injury or a fatality,” the memo states.

Ross will continue being questioned by prosecutors Wednesday.