Prosecutors in the criminal trial of former Massey Energy Co. CEO Don Blankenship on Thursday began what they have told jurors will be a parade of coal miners who will testify about increasingly hazardous working conditions at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.
Bobbie Pauley, the only female miner working at Upper Big Branch, recalled that when she worked underground at the mine, fresh air was never adequate and was sometimes blowing in the wrong direction.
“We had very little air,” Pauley told jurors in the second day of testimony at the Robert C. Byrd United States Courthouse in Charleston. “We always had problems with our air.”
Pauley testified about what she called “shocking” incidents when she first started working underground at the Raleigh County mine in 2008.
Pauley said she and other workers were told to ignore a hazard-warning sign meant to block off an area of the mine, and then to crawl under a working coal conveyor belt — both actions she was trained not to do, she said. The area beyond the hazard warning sign was a mess, Pauley said.
“The roof had fallen . . . there were [roof] bolts hanging out that weren’t supporting anything,” Pauley told jurors. “A lot of the roof had fallen and it was on the ground.”
Pauley, who now works for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, had fallen in love and planned to marry Howard “Boone” Payne, one of the miners who died in the April 5, 2010, explosion at Upper Big Branch. She took the stand in Blankenship’s trial just before U.S. District Judge Irene Berger gave jurors their daily lunch break.
Blankenship faces three felony counts alleging that he conspired to violate mine safety standards and thwart government inspectors to cover up the resulting hazards to workers.
He also is charged with making false statements to securities regulators and with securities fraud. Those charges allege that Blankenship issued false public statements touting Massey’s safety practices to try to stop company stock — and his personal fortune — from plummeting after the Upper Big Branch disaster.
Questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Greg McVey, Pauley also testified that mine management told her and other workers to cheat the system meant to detect whether miners were exposed to illegal levels of coal dust that causes black lung disease.
“There were times we were supposed to be wearing them [dust monitors] when they were placed . . . in other areas so the tests would come out cleaner,” Pauley said.
Pauley gave jurors a list of a half-dozen mine managers who she said instructed her, while working as a dispatcher, to warn underground employees when government inspectors arrived on site. Pauley said a security guard would radio the dispatcher’s office when inspectors arrived and she would use a mine phone to pass that information to workers underground.
“We knew, from the time they came through the main gate, they were coming up the hill,” Pauley said.
She said that when she worked underground and received similar warnings, she would help fix any violations before inspectors could see them.
“You made sure that you were legal,” Pauley said. “You would shut down the section and start doing the things you should have been doing.”
Under cross-examination by defense lawyer Blair Brown, Pauley testified that Blankenship did not personally tell her to provide advanced notice when inspectors arrived. Pauley, though, also said she had never talked to Blankenship before the Upper Big Branch explosion.
During Thursday’s court session, the front row of the gallery, directly behind Blankenship, was filled with a handful of family members of miners who died in the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Blankenship sat quietly, sometimes taking notes and occasionally conferring with his lawyers.
When Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby began to ask Tracy Stumbo, the government’s mine safety expert, questions about a large map of the Upper Big Branch operation, Blankenship got up from the counsel table and walked across the courtroom so he could see the map, eventually taking a seat immediately adjacent to the jury box.
Continuing testimony that he started Wednesday, Stumbo explained to jurors how mine companies must build various structures underground to direct clean air from mine fans and separate it from dirty air contaminated with methane or coal dust.
Stumbo described one type of structure, called an overcast, which carries clean air in one tunnel over an intersection with another tunnel that contains dirty air.
“It’s just a way to let the air come up over the track,” Stumbo testified. “It’s an intersection, just like you’d have over a road.”
Stumbo also explained the process that mine examiners, or “firebosses,” are supposed to use to check mines for potential hazards.
“They’re looking for anything unusual, anything hazardous,” Stumbo said. “Things can change in a minute in a coal mine. Many things can happen.”
Stumbo said that, as underground miners dig farther and farther, expanding into many miles of tunnels, it takes more workers to check for safety hazards and fix any that are found.
“You’ve got to have several people working on ventilation, several people rock-dusting every day in these large mines,” Stumbo said.
Walls used his questions to make the point that none of the photographs depicted scenes from the Upper Big Branch Mine. In several instances, Walls wanted Stumbo to point out differences, such as the lack of reflective clothing worn by miners in the photos and the lack of a canopy on a mantrip in one of the photos, compared to what Walls suggested one might find in photographs from a Massey operation.
Also, Walls tried to undermine earlier testimony in which Stumbo described the need for frequent — in some cases daily — safety examinations by company firebosses. Stumbo would not admit that areas of a mine where active coal production isn’t occurring shouldn’t be a focus for fireboss examinations.
“If you have a person building a stopping in the [air] return [tunnel], that area has to be pre-shifted,” Stumbo said. “If someone has to go to a pump, that area has to be pre-shifted.”
Stumbo did say he couldn’t provide a firm estimate for the number of miners needed to perform safety work at Upper Big Branch simply by looking at a map of the mine.
“I would have to do a jobs study,” he said.
Walls also tried to get Stumbo to agree that companies might have good reasons to use blasting to build ventilation overcasts, rather than building them with continuous-mining machines. Walls wanted Stumbo to admit that it might be reasonable for mine operators not to want to pull a continuous-mining machine out from producing coal to build an overcast, or that cutting overcasts quickly wears down continuous-mining machine bits.
Berger sent the jury home early, at 4 p.m., on Thursday, after a dispute developed over an effort by defense lawyers to block jurors from hearing audio of various telephone calls that Blankenship recorded. Jurors were told to return for court at 9 a.m. today.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.