The second week of the criminal trial against former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship continued in Charleston, WV. The US attorneys called eight former employees to the witness stand. They included Blankenship’s executive assistant and five miners who worked at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine just prior to the April 2010 coal dust explosion that killed 29 workers. Transcripts of the trial are not publicly available, but the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr. is providing daily recaps direct from the courtroom.
Ward reports, for example, on the testimony of one of the former UBB miners, Brent Racer. Racer
"...told jurors that safety never seemed to be a priority at Upper Big Branch, despite Massey’s ‘S1, P2’ safety slogan. S1, P2 was touted by Massey to mean safety came first, coal production came second. ''It seemed like, most of the time, it was P1, S2,' Racer told jurors."
The other former UBB coal miners concurred.
“'…Young, Smith and Racer also testified that they weren’t aware of any safety initiatives touted earlier in the day by Blankenship’s defense lawyers ever actually being implemented.'”
Besides the risk created by relentless production pressure, miners faced other obstacles for keeping UBB safe. Ward writes:
“Gary Young described for jurors how he was frequently frustrated when trying to do his job spreading crushed limestone, or 'rockdust,' around the walls, floor and roof the underground mine to prevent deadly explosions. Dusting machines were broken, he said. Supplies ran short and he couldn’t get a mine locomotive to pull his dusting machine underground, Young testified.
“'I’m set up to fail here,' said Young, reading from a notebook where he recorded his experiences during his shifts at Upper Big Branch.”
"Another former Upper Big Branch miner, Michael Smith, told jurors that proper ventilation was a recurring problem at the Raleigh County operation. 'There were a lot of issues with low air,' Smith said, 'so often, I couldn’t count.'”
Their testimony is consistent with what my colleagues and I reported in May 2011 in our independent investigation report to the WV Governor.
For those who want a little more than words to feel the spirit of the trial, look at the illustration by Jeff Pierson. He's a freelance artist working in the courtroom for the Charleston Gazette. On Day 1 of the trial, Pierson captured Blankenship's posture and expression while his defense attorney addressed the jury with an opening statement.
What goes on in the minds of people like Blankenship? Are they complete psychopaths? Are they incapable of human empathy?
One wonder how many ventilation systems could be bought with the money spent on a trip to the Riviera.
Or how many dust respirators could be bought with the money spent to buy a corrupt judge.
Sometimes it seems like we still live in a very primitive society where people in leadership positions engage in what amounts to human sacrifice, and they do it for the purpose of gaining more wealth and more power. Meanwhile, everybody below the executive level is supposed to just ignore what is going on, and mind their own business if they want to keep their job.
If Blankenship gets off without punishment, the message to other mine owners will be that it is still acceptable to put profit far ahead of worker safety.