CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Opening statements concluded Wednesday in the federal trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship in connection with a deadly mine explosion five years ago.
Jury selection began last Thursday and lasted four days. A jury was seated on Wednesday morning at the U.S. District Courthouse in Charleston.
Blankenship, 65, is charged with conspiring to break mine safety laws and lying to financial regulators about safety practices at the Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia. The mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 miners.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby said a variety of witnesses, memos and phone recordings from a device secretly installed by Blankenship in his office will show the executive was intricately involved at Upper Big Branch, and consistently prioritized profits over safety at the mine.
Ruby said under Blankenship, Upper Big Branch had a system to warn underground miners when inspectors arrived so the workers could cover up deficiencies at the mine. They used code words over the radio to cover their tracks, Ruby said.
“The motive for all of this is simple: money,” Ruby said.
Blankenship attorney William Taylor told jurors to ask themselves “whether (Blankenship’s) on trial for what he did, or who he is.” Before the government successfully objected, Taylor mentioned that Blankenship is a conservative Republican, dislikes the Obama administration and disagrees with federal mine safety regulators.
Taylor said Blankenship “wouldn’t win any popularity contests in the state of West Virginia.” He added that citations are inevitable in coal mining, ordering those violations wouldn’t be cost effective and that Massey focused on several safety initiatives under Blankenship. He also contended that Blankenship was not controlling Upper Big Branch at the level prosecutors say he was.
Federal regulators stepped up enforcement of mine safety laws in the wake of Upper Big Branch, which was the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 40 years. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration began special impact inspections in 2010 at mines that have a poor compliance history or specific compliance concerns.
Generally, prosecuting high-level corporate executives is difficult because they can usually demonstrate detachment from operations on the ground.
In Blankenship’s case, federal prosecutors are highlighting memos and testimony they say show the CEO was intimately involved in how his mines were run, with profit trumping safety.
Blankenship’s attorneys have said the CEO simply wanted to increase coal production while decreasing costs and that he wasn’t personally involved in any of the hundreds of mine safety violations cited in his indictment.
Blankenship has never shied from a fight. He has battled unions, spent millions to support Republicans in state races and fought regulators over safety and environmental rules.
He rose from a modest, single-mother upbringing in Appalachia to head Massey, where he personally made $19.7 million in 2008. He retired from Massey in December 2010.