The Dark Lord of Coal Country

The Rolling Stone investigation that forced the resignation of Don Blankenship, the coal industry’s dirtiest CEO

November 29, 2010 12:00 PM ET
The Dark Lord of Coal Country
Carolyn Kaster/AP Images

On Friday, December 3rd, a week after this article was published in Rolling Stone, Massey Energy announced that Don Blankenship will be retiring as CEO and chairman. “After almost three decades at Massey, it’s time for me to move on,” Blankenship said in a statement. It’s not clear whether he was forced out, but the news took nearly everyone in coal country by surprise. An executive at the West Virginia Coal Association called the announcement “unreal,” and a leading environmentalist exulted, “Ding, dong, the witch is dead!” Mineweb, an influential industry publication, noted a similarity between Blankenship’s sudden exit and that of Gen. Stanley McChrystal earlier this year: “Both men were the subjects of highly controversial profiles by Rolling Stone magazine.”

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.

One balmy night this fall, a black BMW 750LI — a German luxury sedan that costs more than a typical coal miner makes in a year — pulls into the parking lot of the shaggy country club in Bluefield, West Virginia. Bluefield is a fading coal town in a state that is full of fading coal towns. Seventy-five years ago, when the Pocahontas coal seam was one of the richest veins in America, and tooling up for the 20th century required massive tonnage of coal, there was money here, and hope. But now the coal is mined out, the buildings downtown are vacant, and shiny new Beemers are about as common as flying saucers.

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The driver — a young, tan, L.A.-surfer-boy type — jumps out and opens the rear door. A tall man, 60, with a thin mustache and a double chin emerges: Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy, the largest and most powerful coal company in central Appalachia. He grabs his dark-blue suit jacket, which is folded on the tan leather seat beside him, and slips it on. He wears a red-and-yellow silk tie and tasseled leather loafers. His hands are chubby and white — no calluses, not a speck of coal dust. Accountant's hands. His eyes are black and inexpressive.

This article appears in the December 9, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and in the online archive.

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.

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As Blankenship walks into the country club, heads turn. A hundred executives from the coal industry have gathered for a two-day conference on mine safety — a topic that has taken on added urgency since April, when 29 men were killed in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine run by Massey Energy. The blast, fueled by high levels of methane in the mine, was so powerful that it twisted the steel rail tracks on the mine's floor and killed men more than a mile away. It was the worst mining tragedy in 40 years, but nobody in the room seems to hold that against Blankenship. As he strides to the podium, he is greeted by applause and whistles. A handful of students from Virginia Tech rush up to get their picture taken with him as his fellow coal executives stand aside, resentment and awe mixed on their faces.

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