Coal Tattoo

Bill Ross Nov 4

Photo by Joel Ebert

Former Massey Energy insider Bill Ross warned CEO Don Blankenship that the company risked a disaster if it didn’t reform its mine safety program, the jury in Blankenship’s criminal trial heard this afternoon.

Ross described for jurors a meeting he had with Blankenship in the summer 2009 after Ross wrote a series of memos that outlined growing violations at Massey operations.

“One thing you can’t afford to have happen,” Ross recalled telling Blankenship, “you can’t afford to have a disaster.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby allowed that quote to close out his direct examination of Ross, a key prosecution witness against Blankenship.

When US District Judge Irene Berger gave the jury its regular afternoon break, defense attorney Bill Taylor had just begun his cross-examination of Ross. Taylor was starting out by asking Ross a series of questions about what the defense is promoting as important Massey safety innovations, such as reflective clothing, that weren’t required by federal rules.

Earlier, Ruby asked Ross to read from a selection of daily violation reports that were sent to Blankenship and other Massey officials. On Tuesday, Ruby and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin had lugged copies of the daily reports – in five thick three-ringed binders – to the court clerk and to defense lawyers.

The reports showed Blankenship being told that violations continued in large numbers even after a new company hazard elimination program was launched in August 2009.

One report, for example, showed 330 violations cited at the Upper Big Branch Mining group, in the three months prior to the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at UBB.

Ross testified about several emails and memos in which he expressed disappointment with Massey’s progress to reduce violations. In one February 2010 email to then Massey lawyer Stephanie Ojeda, wrote Ross, “We are fighting a losing battle.”

In an accompanying memo, Ross said that the new hazard elimination program “shows no sign of acceptance” among Massey foremen.

“We continued to set up our mines to fail,” Ross wrote.