Massey Energy executives used an advanced warning system at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine to alert workers as soon as federal inspectors arrived on site, a former miner testified Thursday at the criminal trial for ex-chief executive Donald Blankenship.
Bobbie Pauley, who worked for Massey in 2008 and 2009 as both a miner and dispatcher, said she was told by company officials to give advanced warnings of surprise mine inspections. A guard would call as soon as an inspector arrived on the property and she immediately paged miners underground, Pauley said.
When Massey miners were tipped off about inspections they would immediately “make sure you were running legal and doing the things you were supposed to do,” Pauley told jurors in Charleston, West Virginia.
Neglected ventilation systems would be turned on and rock dust would be spread to cut the chances of an explosion, tasks Massey employees spurned because of management’s concerns that it would slow production, she added.
Under cross-examination by Blankenship’s lawyers, Pauley acknowledged that while it was “standard procedure” to alert miners of imminent inspections, Blankenship never personally ordered her to do so.
“I didn’t know it was illegal” to give such warnings, she said. Miners also were warned when top executives were heading down into the mine, she said.
Pauley is the second witness to testify in the case against Blankenship. The former CEO is accused of plotting to ignore safety violations that led to the 2010 blast that killed 29 miners. The disaster was the worst coal industry explosion in the U.S. in four decades. Blankenship has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors claim that Blankenship worked with other company officials to violate safety and health laws, impede inspections of Massey’s mines and lie to investors about the company’s compliance with government regulations. He stands accused of sacrificing safety to speed up coal production so he could reap millions in compensation.
William Taylor, an attorney for Blankenship, blamed inept regulators for the mine disaster and questioned Wednesday whether the government was targeting the executive because of his criticism.
In opening statements on Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby described Blankenship as a micro-manager who was personally involved in every detail of operations at the mine, located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Charleston.
Ruby told jurors that Chris Blanchard, former president of the Massey unit that operated the mine, will testify during the trial that Blankenship demanded subordinates carry out his instructions to the letter to ramp-up production and cut costs.
Pauley said Thursday Blanchard was among the managers who ordered her to warn miners. Blanchard, who wasn’t charged in connection with the mine explosion, got immunity from prosecutors in exchange for his testimony against Blankenship, Charleston’s Gazette-Mail newspaper reported on Oct. 4.
The former miner, who joined the Mine Safety and Health Administration as a trainer in 2011, recalled seeing unsafe conditions at the Upper Big Branch mine a year before the fatal blast.
Pauley said supervisors ignored her complaints about ventilation problems and unstable roofs in some sections of the mine. At some parts of the facility “the air just felt smothery,” she recalled.
The case is U.S. v. Blankenship, 14-cr-00244, U.S. District Court, Southern District of West Virginia (Charleston).
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