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From the Archive: Profile of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship

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From the Archive: Profile of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship
Carolyn Kaster/AP Images

A year ago today, 29 men were killed in an explosion at Massey Energy Co.'s Big Upper Branch mine in West Virginia. A soon-to-be-published report on the causes of the blast -- the worst U.S. coal field disaster in 40 years -- is expected to tear into regulators for lax oversight, and the company for cutting corners on safety. Meanwhile, families of dead miners have filed at least 10 wrongful-death lawsuits against Massey. And no wonder. As Rolling Stone's Jeff Goodell put it last year in a profile of Massey CEO Don Blankenship, Big Upper Branch was essentially "an outlaw coal mine," picking up hundreds of safety violations and $1 million in a single year -- because that's how Blankenship did business.

Here's more from the piece:

Unless you live in West Virginia, you've probably never heard of Don Blankenship. You might not know that he grew up in the coal fields of West Virginia, received an accounting degree from a local college, and, through a combination of luck, hard work and coldblooded ruthlessness, transformed himself into the embodiment of everything that's wrong with the business and politics of energy in America today — a man who pursues naked self-interest and calls it patriotism, who buys judges like cheap hookers, treats workers like dogs, blasts mountains to get at a few inches of coal and uses his money and influence to ensure that America remains enslaved to the 19th-century idea that burning coal equals progress. And for this, he earns $18 million a year — making him the highest-paid CEO in the coal industry — and flies off to vacations on the French Riviera. ...

In Blankenship's view, being productive means getting coal out of the ground as fast and cheap as possible, no matter the cost to workers or the environment. "He has been hugely influential in the coal industry in Appalachia," says a rival coal executive. "He basically transformed a gentlemanly, Democratic, union-based industry, where deals were done on a handshake, into the aggressive, partisan industry that we know today." Blankenship helped popularize the style of mining known as mountaintop removal, in which the mountains are removed from the coal, rather than the coal from the mountains — a practice that has destroyed 2,000 miles of streams and damaged more than a million acres of forest. He has fought labor unions and federal regulators at every turn, exposing miners to dangerous conditions. And he has injected toxic coal slurry near underground aquifers, a practice that has allegedly sickened hundreds of residents. "All in all, Blankenship has probably caused more suffering than any other human being in Appalachia," says [Cecil] Roberts [the head of the United Mine Workers of America.] ...

With so much profitable coal to be had, the focus was on productivity at any cost. The safety record at the mine was abysmal — and it was getting worse. Last year, citations by the Mine Safety Health Administration at Upper Big Branch doubled to more than 500 — including 200 for "significant and substantial" violations that MSHA considers "reasonably likely to result in a reasonably serious injury or illness." Most telling of all, MSHA issued 61 withdrawal orders at the mine, temporarily shutting down parts of the operation 54 times in 2009 and seven times in 2010. Such a high number of withdrawal orders is virtually unheard of in the industry — yet federal inspectors, not known for being tough on outlaw coal operations, failed to close down the mine. "It's like someone driving drunk 61 times," said Celeste Monforton, a former policy adviser at MSHA.

Read the full article: The Dark Lord of Coal Country

On Friday, December 3rd, 2010, a week after Goodell's article was published in Rolling Stone, Massey Energy announced that Don Blankenship would be retiring as CEO and chairman. Rolling Stone editors wrote at the time, "Blankenship’s exit may be part of a larger strategy to keep himself out of jail and avoid financial liability for the suffering he has caused during his decades as Appalachia’s most powerful coal baron. But it’s good news for Massey stockholders: With Blankenship out of the picture, it could now be easier to find a buyer for the coal company that he has turned into a national symbol of lethal greed."

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