Safety Specialist: Massey Defied Safety Laws

Nov 3, 2015

A 32-year Mine Safety and Health Administration official turned Massey Energy mine planning and safety specialist testified the company had a reputation of defiance when it came to following mine safety regulations. 

Bill Ross, who began working for Massey in 2008 after retiring from MSHA, took the witness stand Tuesday in the trial of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship

Much of Ross's testimony centered on a 2009 memo penned by former Massey attorney Stephanie Ojeda. In the confidential memo, sent to Blankenship and other top Massey officials, Ross detailed many of the problems he saw within the company's safety compliance after conducting training courses with Massey facilities. 

In the memo, Ross said Massey needed to "change the way we do business," referring to the high number of violations the company was receiving, some of the most of any company in the country. 

"Normally a mine that gets a lot of violations, judging by the past, there are more injuries or even fatalities there," Ross testified. "We needed to change the way things were done."

But MSHA officials viewed Massey as an arrogant even defiant company, Ross said. 

"All MSHA wanted was for the operator to comply," he testified, "and it seemed like with all the violations we received, [the mine foremen] either didn't know how to comply [with safety regulations] or didn't want to."

That was another problem Ross pointed out in the 2009 memo, too many inexperienced miners in managerial positions who lacked proper training and often directed their miners to do things that were not in line with federal and state regulations.

The biggest problem at Massey though, according to Ross, was he lack of man power. 

During his training courses, Ross said mine foremen would often complain they were working with "skeleton crews" and were assigned more work than they could reasonably complete in their 10 to 12 hour shifts. Those complaints paired with the high volume of safety violations led Ross to recommend the company hire more miners, a recommendation he said was never taken.

Ross's testimony about the 2009 memo came after objections to its use from Blankenship's attorneys. Lead defense attorney Bill Taylor argued, among other things, Ross's testimony was based on third party statements from unnamed sources that could not be verified. Taylor wanted portions of the memo to be redacted before Ross took the stand.

Federal District Judge Irene Berger had previously admitted the memo into evidence and, therefore, did not permit the redaction. 

In earlier evidence entered by the government, jurors heard audio recordings between Blankenship and other Massey officials in which he called the memo "worse than a Charleston Gazette article" and a terrible document to be in discovery, or the process of recovering documents in a legal proceeding. 

Ross's testimony, which began at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, will continue Wednesday morning.