CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A key government witness testified Wednesday that he warned his former coal company's top executive who questioned the cost of hiring more workers to address safety problems that the company couldn't "afford to have a disaster."
Former Massey Energy safety official William Ross testified for a second day in the federal trial of ex-CEO Don Blankenship, who is charged with conspiring to break safety laws at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia and lying to financial regulators and investors about safety.
Ross discussed a lunch meeting he had with Blankenship in Williamson in the summer of 2009, less than a year before an explosion at Upper Big Branch killed 29 miners.
The meeting occurred after Ross made recommendations in company memos about dealing with safety violations at Massey mines.
Ross said he didn't know what the meeting would be about and initially thought he was going to be fired. Instead, Ross brought up safety violations at Massey mines and suggested the company increase the number of workers by one in each of its approximately 50 mine sections.
Ross said Blankenship wanted to know how much it would cost to do that, making references to insurance and health care. Prosecutors said Massey had more than $600 million in cash on hand and cash equivalents in June 2009 to do that.
Ross said he had no idea how much hiring more workers would cost, but told Blankenship, "one thing you can't afford to have happen, you cannot afford a disaster, because most mines cannot survive a disaster."
Prosecutors said the Upper Big Branch mine sent out a staff reduction notice in the days before the explosion. And despite the company's launch of a plan to eliminate mine hazards in August 2009, a group of mines that included Upper Big Branch had a significant number of safety violations in the first three months of 2010.
Ross expressed his frustration in company emails and memos over Massey's safety progress, including a lack of hiring more workers. Ross said he distributed 100 pocket-sized books dealing with safety regulations to mine foremen.
"They need people to maintain the mines," Ross wrote in January 2010 to a company attorney. "We are reactionary and not proactive. I fear the worst is yet to come.
A month later, Ross wrote in another memo that "if we can't help these people, we are fighting a losing battle."
Ross became emotional in his testimony both about the lunch meeting with Blankenship and as he testified about a once-confidential safety assessment he gave of Massey.
Ross, who joined Massey in 2008 after spending more than three decades working for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, read excerpts of a July 2009 memo in which he wrote he was "so thrilled about a NEW Massey Energy" and testified that he believed "good things were going to happen.
"I thought they would take serious steps to change," he said.
Under questioning from Blankenship attorney William Taylor, Ross said Blankenship asked him in July 2009 to write a script for a company video that would highlight upper management's commitment to safety. And the defense showed a note Blankenship wrote to Ross and a company compliance officer asking to look into the causes of several safety citations, point out those responsible and what could have prevented them.
Blankenship added in another handwritten note, "Those not getting the message should be clearly getting the message."