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The Dark Lord of Coal Country

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The real reason that the coal industry in West Virginia is slowly dying has nothing to do with government regulation. After 150 years of mining, most of the good, easy-to-get coal in Appalachia is simply gone. Coal production in the region plunged 13 percent last year — one of the biggest drops in 50 years. But to Blankenship, the true enemies are the environmental "greeniacs" who recognize that burning coal has dangerously overheated the planet. In his view, even something as innocuous as energy conservation is nothing but a communist plot. "Turn down your thermostats?" he once scoffed. "Buy a smaller car? Conserve? I have spent quite a bit of time in Russia and China, and that's the first stage. You go from having your own car to carpooling to riding the bus to mass transit. You eventually get to where you're going by walking. That's what socialism and the elimination of capitalism and free enterprise is all about."

But it was the disaster at Upper Big Branch that brought Blankenship into the national spotlight. "It was his coming-out party," says Jeff Biggers, author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek, who has written widely about the coal industry. "People in the coal fields had been dealing for years with the brutal repercussions of how Blankenship operates. Now the rest of the country was getting a look." In a Rose Garden speech not long after the disaster, President Obama seemed to point his finger directly at Blankenship. "This tragedy was triggered by a failure, first and foremost, of management," Obama said. Massey's stock price plunged, cutting the value of the company by at least $2 billion, and a group of powerful shareholders filed a lawsuit against Blankenship and Massey's board, accusing them of mismanagement. On top of everything, the Justice Department announced a criminal investigation into the Upper Big Branch explosion. As a senior official in the Labor Department told me flat-out: "We would like to see Don Blankenship go to jail."


B
lankenship lives in Mingo County, West Virginia, just a few miles from where he grew up. It's one of the poorest, sickest, most economically depressed regions in America. Blankenship's house, which sits near the polluted waters of the Tug Fork, is an oasis of money and privilege in a landscape of rusting 4x4s and abandoned appliances. From the road, it looks like an estate in the Hamptons, with neatly trimmed hedges and a broad curving drive. The property is surrounded by a high steel fence, with cameras mounted near the automatic gate. The house itself, fittingly enough, is an old mining superintendent's building, built back in the days when coal barons like Blankenship hired armed guards to mow down striking miners with machine guns. Nearby is a helicopter landing pad, as well as a spacious garage for Blankenship's vehicles, which reportedly include a Bentley. Across the river, perched on the mountaintop like a castle, is Blankenship's corporate party house, a baronial estate where he entertains industry executives and politicians with superb views of his broken world.

Blankenship was born just down the road in Stopover, Kentucky, a tiny collection of shacks and mobile homes. His mother, Nancy, was a McCoy, a descendant of the infamous mountain clan that was always warring with the Hatfields. Soon after Blankenship was born, his mother divorced her husband, who was serving in Korea, and moved across the border to Delorme, West Virginia. She used her divorce settlement to buy a convenience store and gas station, where she worked for the next 40 years.

Today, Delorme is more a memory than a town — a few houses scattered along the banks of the Tug Fork, a tiny post office, a vinyl-sided Pentecostal church and a sagging building by the railroad tracks where you can drive up and buy beer. The trailer that Blankenship and his three siblings grew up in is long gone, as is his mother's store, both wiped out by occasional floods and constant poverty. But back in the 1950s, when Blankenship was a kid, the Norfolk and Western Railway still rumbled through, and it was a lively place. "There were seven bars in town," says Jack Murphy, who grew up with Blankenship. "It got rough sometimes." Blankenship watched bar fights from his living-room window, sometimes climbing up on the roof of a nearby barbershop to get closer to the action.

Blankenship takes pride in the fact that he grew up in such a hardscrabble place. "I have trapped muskrats for 50 cents and hunted two-cent pop bottles in order to buy a one-dollar baseball," he told a rally of West Virginians last year, trying to establish his street cred as a boy from the hollows. But his biggest influence was clearly his mother, who worked nearly 100 hours a week. Blankenship often helped her in the store, adding up sales numbers in his head. From her, he learned his first lesson in Darwinian economics: In a place as tough as West Virginia, only the strongest survive.

"He was a very competitive kid — he didn't like to fail," says Eddie Croaff, a childhood friend. "He loved baseball and was a pretty good shortstop." Croaff, a former coal miner himself, says that even as a kid Blankenship liked to calculate the odds of risky behavior — like the chances of being killed if he went around a blind corner on the wrong side of the road in his black Chevy Camaro. "He was always trying to figure out what he could get away with."

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