Trial Update: Ex-Massey CEO Blankenship Downplayed Black-Lung Threat to Miners

By and | October 14, 2015

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

Blankenship, a vocal opponent of government regulations, 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 put 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.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger ruled last week that jurors could hear some of Blankenship’s phone calls that were turned over by officials of Alpha Natural Resources Inc., a rival coal company that acquired Massey in 2011 for $7.1 billion.

The safety agency launched 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.

“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.

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

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