Ex-coal CEO on trial talks safety in secretly recorded calls

AP News
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Posted: Oct 13, 2015 7:21 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A jury heard phone calls Tuesday in which former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship said he sometimes thought that without federal mine regulators, "we'd blow ourselves up," and that preventing black lung wasn't worth the effort that regulators put into it.

In U.S. District Court in Charleston, jurors finished listening to the last of 18 recordings Blankenship secretly taped in his Massey office in 2009. The remaining recordings kicked off the second week of trial testimony in Blankenship's criminal case.

Blankenship is charged with conspiring to break mine safety laws and lying to financial regulators about safety practices at Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, which exploded in 2010, killing 29 miners in the worst mine disaster in four decades.

Blankenship, who was consistently critical of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, said in one call that sometimes he was "torn about the craziness we do."

"Maybe if it weren't for MSHA, we'd blow ourselves up. I don't know," Blankenship said in one recorded phone call. "I know MSHA is bad. But I tell you what, we do some dumb things. I don't know what we would do if we didn't have them."

In another call, he criticized the same regulators for how much they pursued enforcement of laws to limit coal dust in mines and prevent black lung.

"The truth of the matter is, black lung is not an issue in this industry that's worth the effort they put into it," Blankenship said in the call.

In the recordings, he also said he wanted to mention safety efforts in a news release because it was "a chance to do some propaganda there."

And he said he wanted to keep an ex-Massey official's safety guidance confidential because it would be a terrible document to resurface in a legal case if a fatal accident occurred.

Prosecutors are painting Blankenship as a profit-hungry executive who prioritized making money over keeping his mines safe. They say he was intricately involved in even minimal decisions at Upper Big Branch, a huge money-making complex for the company in the years leading up to the explosion.

Blankenship's defense has responded that the executive was a tough boss and divisive public figure, but wasn't running Upper Big Branch himself and did not think breaking regulations was a smarter business plan than fixing health hazards.

On Tuesday, the defense asked Blankenship's former executive assistant Sandra Davis if she ever witnessed him agree to break safety laws or tell anyone else to break them. She said no.

Davis took the stand for the government and verified Blankenship's voice, handwriting and some memos.