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The Dark Lord of Coal Country

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Blankenship was president of his high school class and enrolled in Marshall University in Huntington, where he majored in accounting and earned his degree in just three years. He worked in a Kentucky coal mine one summer, but was "a mediocre miner," says Darrell Ratliff, his foreman at the time. "I don't want to say he was lazy, but I had to make him move once in a while." After graduation, Blankenship took a job as an accountant for the Keebler cookie company in Macon, Georgia. He got married, had two kids, settled down. Then in 1982, at a moment when he was in between jobs, he got a call from Massey offering him a job as an office manager. Blankenship, who was 31 at the time, accepted. He would later say that it felt like predestination.

Blankenship went to work at a Massey subsidiary called Rawl Sales & Processing, located just a few miles down the road from where he had grown up in Delorme. A.T. Massey, as the company was then called, was founded in 1920, and it reflected the patriarchal benevolence of its era; its executives were known for their genteel manners and their generous donations to local philanthropies. It was also deeply anti-union. In 1984, Massey tried to break the United Mine Workers by announcing that each of its mines would be treated as separate companies — a move that would effectively enable them to reopen as nonunion operations. Determined to hold Massey accountable for its subsidiaries, the union went on strike that fall. Blankenship, who by then had been named president of Rawl, found himself in the middle of an epic battle in the coal fields of West Virginia.

As a local boy, Blankenship might have been expected to be sympathetic to local workers who were trying to improve safety in the mines and feed their families. But as president of Rawl, Blankenship put profits before people. To him, the union was nothing but a drag on Rawl's profitability — and he quickly turned the mine into a flash point in the larger strike. Blankenship erected two miles of chain-link fence around the facility, brought in dogs and armed guards, and ferried nonunion workers through the union's blockades. The strike, which lasted more than a year, grew increasingly violent — strikers took up baseball bats against the workers trying to take their jobs, and a few even fired shots at the scabs. A volley of bullets zinged into Blankenship's office and smashed into an old TV. Frightened for his safety, Blankenship slept in a different bed every night. But in the end, he proved stronger than the union: In 1985, the United Mine Workers gave in.

The strike marked a turning point in the decades-old struggle between coal barons and their workers. "The union tried to make a stand and failed," says Les Leopold, director of the Labor Institute in New York. "After that, their power in the region declined." For years afterward, Blankenship kept the TV with a bullet hole through it in his office as a souvenir — and a reminder to others of what a tough motherfucker he is.


B
lankenship's success as a union buster, combined with his mastery of financial arcana, catapulted him through the ranks at Massey. "Don could always tell you exactly what the numbers were," recalled E. Morgan Massey, the grandson of the company's founder. "The numbers drive every decision he makes." In 1992, only a decade after starting out at Massey, Blankenship was appointed chairman and CEO.

At the time, Appalachia's coal industry faced increasing competition from big Western mines and from natural gas, which is cheaper and cleaner. To cut costs, Blankenship started blowing up mountains to get at the coal, since blasting is cheaper than digging. He also used Massey's financial strength to buy up smaller coal companies that were having a rough time, often at fire-sale prices. "Blankenship is a master at recognizing and taking advantage of distressed assets," says Bruce Stanley, a lawyer who grew up in Mingo County not far from Blankenship. In 1997, hoping to sell more of a special type of premium-priced coal used in steelmaking, Blankenship set his sights on a small outfit called Harman Mining.

First, Blankenship bought the company that processed Harman's coal and broke its contract with the smaller firm. "I didn't know it at the time, but his goal was to replace my coal with cheaper, lower-quality coal from his own mine," says Hugh Caperton, who served as president of Harman. Then, after offering to buy out Harman, Blankenship used information he had obtained during the negotiations to buy up the coal reserves around Harman's mine, effectively making the company unattractive to other buyers. "His goal was to drive me into bankruptcy, so he could buy me for nothing," Caperton says.

Caperton lost a company he had spent 10 years building, and his 150 employees lost their jobs. Not long afterward, Blankenship stopped in to see his vanquished rival. "It was one of the strangest conversations I've ever had," Caperton recalls. "He just walked into my office, and if I would have had a couch, he would have laid down on it. He said, 'I don't understand why people don't like me anymore. In high school, I played ball. I was really popular.' " Then Blankenship abruptly stood up and left.

Despite Blankenship's power, Caperton decided to fight back. He sued Massey, arguing that the company had set out to destroy him. In 2002, a jury awarded Caperton $50 million in damages.

Blankenship was furious. "He took this fight personally," says Stanley, who represented Caperton in the case. "His whole persona is based on the idea that if you mess around with Don, he will take you to the wall." Massey appealed the verdict to the state's Supreme Court. But rather than trusting in the wisdom of the justice system, Blankenship tried to rig the outcome in his favor. In 2004, he spent $3 million — an enormous sum in West Virginia politics — to finance a political hit machine to take down Justice Warren McGraw, who was likely to serve as the swing vote in the court's decision. The group deployed every sleazy trick in the book, accusing McGraw of letting child rapists out of prison and putting them to work in local schools. The smear tactics worked: McGraw was defeated, replaced by an industry-friendly judge backed by Blankenship. In 2007, the court overturned the $50 million verdict against Blankenship by a vote of 3 to 2. His $3 million investment had saved him $47 million.

"Don didn't put $3 million into the election because he wanted a fair and balanced court system," says Robert Rupp, the political science professor. "He wanted to buy himself a favorable verdict."

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