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'Code of silence' over dangers at West Virginia disaster mine

Published 21/10/2015

Twenty-nine men were killed in the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in 2010
Twenty-nine men were killed in the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in 2010

A former coal miner has told a US court of a "code of silence" over safety dangers at a West Virginia pit where an explosion killed 29 men.

Choking back tears, Stanley "Goose" Stewart said Upper Big Branch miners feared they would be sacked or bullied into leaving if they spoke up about the mine's deficiencies.

He said miners were ordered by management to cheat to make the mine seem well-ventilated, even though it was often riddled with explosive methane and coal dust, which also causes black lung disease.

"The company wanted to mine if you had insufficient air or no air," Mr Stewart told the trial in Charleston of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship . "You load, or go home."

Blankenship is charged with conspiring to break mine safety laws at the Upper Big Branch mine and lying to financial regulators about company safety. Twenty-nine men died in the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, the deadliest mine accident in 40 years.

Mr Stewart gave evidence about safety issues to a congressional panel in 2010, recalling that he was 300 feet underground when a fireball tore through the mine following the explosion. Methane gas and dust clouded the mine.

He became tearful on Tuesday, when US Attorney Booth Goodwin asked him why he decided to give evidence to Congress.

"I felt like the truth needed to be told," Mr Stewart said.

Asked about several ventilation reports that said enough air was flowing while he worked there, Mr Stewart said he knew that not all the reports were truthful.

He said government inspectors who were aware of the fear miners had about discussing problems told them to mention where to look for issues as they passed by. The system let miners avoid being caught tipping off the inspectors.

Prosecutors are painting Blankenship as a micromanager who put profits above safety, particularly at Massey's highly profitable Upper Big Branch complex.

Blankenship's lawyers say he was a divisive figure and a pushy boss who cared about money, but still ordered that safety came first.

Mr Stewart was one of several former miners and supervisors to tell of poor safety at Upper Big Branch.

More key Massey management members are expected to take the stand at the trial, which began on October 1.

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