By Wendy Holdren
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — “Production came first. Safety came second,” a former Upper Big Branch coal miner testified Thursday during Day 6 of the criminal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.
Bobbie Dawn Pauley cited multiple safety hazards she witnessed firsthand underground, including the falsification of air quality tests and improper ventilation systems, which she said was encouraged by supervisors.
A safety program at Massey called S1P2 (which stood for safety first, production second) was considered “a joke” by UBB miners, Pauley said.
She said she never even heard of another safety initiative called the Hazard Elimination Program.
Assistant U.S. Prosecuting Attorney Greg McVey questioned Pauley about the specifics she saw at the mine, starting when she was a “red hat,” an inexperienced coal miner in January 2008.
Pauley described one incident in which her immediate supervisor led her and a crew of other red hats past a piece of caution tape, directing them to crawl under a moving belt, even though she said her training had warned her against these unsafe practices.
She noted other conditions in the mine included coal overspill from the conveyor belt, muddy water up to 2 feet deep and several fallen areas of the roof.
As a “black hat,” or experienced miner, she saw other areas throughout UBB that had failing roofs, coal mine walls or “ribs” that were caving in, and water flowing from the face of the mine.
One section of the mine had “roofed out,” meaning water was all the way to the ceiling, which restricted proper airflow.
“We had very little air,” she said, describing the atmosphere as stagnant and hot.
She said despite complaints to her supervisor, no changes were made.
Airflow directing curtains were oftentimes never hung, Pauley said, because hanging them took time, and
more coal could be run if the curtain wasn’t in the way.
Advance warnings were sent from dispatchers to miners working underground to make sure they were “running legal.”
Pauley said miners had to stop what they were doing, hang the airflow curtains, get air circulating properly and start spreading rock dust (which helps prevent mine explosions).
Supervisors also encouraged the falsification of air quality tests by either leaving the monitor, which should have been worn on the miner’s person, at an intake area bringing in fresh air, or by wearing the breathing piece under their jackets to act as a filter.
When Pauley broke her lower leg in August 2008, she returned in October as an outside dispatcher, where she admitted she provided advance notice of inspections.
McVey asked who instructed her to do that. “Do you want names?” Pauley asked, as she rolled off a list of at least seven supervisors or upper level managers who encouraged the practice, including former superintendent Gary May and former Performance Coal president Chris Blanchard.
She said she did not know the practice was illegal until later, when she nearly sent advance notice while a Mine Safety and Health Administration official was on site — May said, “Don’t let him hear you!”
Pauley now works as a training specialist for MSHA.
On cross-examination by defense attorney Blair Brown, Pauley reviewed the number of people responsible for safety at the mine, which include foremen, section foremen, superintendent, supeintendent’s assistant and the fire boss.
Brown highlighted that safety isn’t the responsibility of just one person, but many. •••
The court anticipated testimony Thursday afternoon from the prosecution’s third witness, Blankenship’s former assistant at Massey, but defense attorneys raised an objection to the next 21 pieces of evidence — recorded phone calls in which Blankenship discusses his compensation, stock holdings and a memo highlighting safety violations.
The defense argues that the “snippets” of the tapes the prosecution will play for the court will take Blankenship’s statements out of context, painting him as “sinister.”
The defense either wants the tapes to be excluded entirely, or for the full recordings to be played. Prosecutors argued the tapes are relevant because they show Blankenship’s consciousness of guilt.
Earlier Thursday, defense attorneys cross examined the prosecution’s first witness, Tracy L. Stumbo, who
recently retired as a Kentucky’s chief mine accident investigator.
The defense seemingly laid a foundation to show that MSHA may have targeted Massey Energy mines, issuing citations where other mines may have gotten a pass.
Stumbo showed a number of photos Wednesday from unknown mine sites, explaining the purpose of certain pieces of equipment, as well as different areas underground to help jurors better understand the coal mining process.
Defense attorney Jim Walls noted that Stumbo was hired by the prosecution, and continued to question him about the quality of the mines depicted in each photograph.
Walls called into question a number of “missing” safety elements in each photo, from lack of reflective strips on coal miners’ clothing to the lack of rock dust on a roof.
Stumbo countered many of Walls’ suggestions, arguing he would have to see the mine in person to know if the issue would constitute a violation.
Walls also seemed to be establishing a foundation to later show that practices at Massey mines were safe, or that upper management, including Blankenship, made efforts to reduce safety hazards.
The investigation into these unsafe practices stemmed from the April 5, 2010, UBB mine explosion in Montcoal that killed 29 miners.
Blankenship is not charged with causing the explosion, but he is charged with conspiracy to violate safety standards and lying to investors and securities regulators after the explosion.
If convicted of all charges, the 65-year-old faces up to 30 years in prison.
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