Memo Depicts Key Witness' Concerns Over Safety in Massey Mines

Oct 5, 2015

A memo newly filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office depicts concerns a former Massey Energy employee, and key witness in the prosecution’s case, had over safety within Massey’s mines, warning the company needed to “change the way we do business.”

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

Filed Sunday in U.S. District Court, the memo to former Massey CEO Don Blankenship came from Massey Attorney Stephanie Ojeda. It contained the concerns of Bill Ross, a ventilation expert who previously worked for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Ross’s concerns over Massey operations as depicted in the nine-page document include a “warlike atmosphere” between the company and MSHA officials, inexperienced employees in key safety positions, and “cheating on dust sampling.”

The memo, dated June 25, 2009, says:

“We need to change how we do business. Massey has its own protocol, its own way of mining coal…The rules of mining have changed, but we and the way we do business have not.”

“The biggest complaint of the foreman is that they are continually forced to operate with skeleton crews. In addition to being a boss and an examiner, they are forced to also act as a worker. If they need nine men, they are given five and are still expected to produce big footage.”

“They [the foremen] feel that their job is to run big footage and when they are given citations the company will simply negotiate and pay the amount of the fine. The foreman…are unaware that they are building a track record at that mine. The cycle just seems to continue and never get better.”

The memo contains information Ross gained by interviewing employees in the Massey system and at MSHA. Ross is expected to testify about the same information.

The memo was used as evidence in a Delaware case Blankenship filed against Alpha Natural Resources after the company bought Massey and refused to pay Blankenship’s attorney fees in this case, filed in Beckley District Court.

Blankenship's defense team also filed a motion Sunday, asking Judge Irene Berger not to allow prosecutors to talk about Ross in their opening statements. Blankenship's lawyers said in the motion that much of the Ross memo is hearsay because it's based on information he got second hand.

Blankenship is charged with conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws and lying to investors about Massey’s safety record after the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 men. 

Blankenship has maintained his innocence and is fighting all charges leveled against him.