Defense highlights ex-coal CEO's safety practices

AP News
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Posted: Oct 26, 2015 6:43 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — With a key government witness on the stand Monday, a former coal boss' defense team highlighted memos and notes to contend that his company prioritized safety and disciplined people when they worked haphazardly.

In Charleston federal court, ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship's top attorney continued questioning former Massey subsidiary president Christopher Blanchard. Blanchard has testified since Thursday under an immunity agreement with the government. He opted to cooperate with the government instead of being prosecuted, he has testified.

Blankenship is on trial for 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. Blanchard's subsidiary, Performance Coal, oversaw the mine.

On Monday, Blanchard told defense attorney William Taylor that Blankenship didn't instruct him to ignore safety laws once Upper Big Branch no longer was in immediate danger of joining a list of safety law pattern violators. Blanchard said that in the U.S. coal industry, it's understood that mines will be cited for some violations.

Last week, Blanchard testified to prosecutors that there was an understanding that Massey was going to get written up for a certain number of violations that could have been prevented. He also said he believed there was an understanding that it would cost less to pay fines than to try to prevent the violations.

Once Taylor started the defense's questioning Friday, Blanchard testified that he did not conspire with Blankenship to break safety standards. Blanchard also said he himself had not broken any laws.

On Monday, Taylor highlighted dozens of federal citations and internal disciplinary actions in which Massey managers showed concern about safety problems. People were reprimanded, suspended, and sometimes fired for their mistakes, the defense's documents showed.

In several citations at Blanchard's mines, former Massey Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins wrote notes back indicating that breaking regulations was not cost effective compared to implementing property safety precautions in the first place.

In one citation, a Massey inspector failed to recognize that a gas detector was missing in the mine. In a follow-up note to Blanchard, Adkins added up the $500 cost of buying the detector and the $7,176 violation fine, with a caption that said, "WOW."

Adkin's handwritten notes on the citations often asked: "Who is responsible?"

One of the notes, Blanchard said, made the point that "10 cents of labor to permit a $1,000 violation was a smart thing to do."

Defense attorneys will continue questioning Blanchard on Tuesday.