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The Dark Lord of Coal Country

Page 6 of 8

Nor was the epidemic in West Virginia the only catastrophe caused by the way Blankenship disposed of coal slurry. In October 2000, a large slurry pond at a Massey subsidiary in Martin County, Kentucky, broke open and spilled 300 million gallons of black, toxic sludge into surrounding creeks. It was one of the nation's worst man-made environmental disasters. Massey paid $3.5 million in state fines for the breach, but only $5,600 in federal penalties.

Mollett, a tall, quiet guy in his late 30s with hair down to his shoulders, says his life has been destroyed by the company's toxic waste. The drugs he takes for his kidney ailments have made him a diabetic, and he can't walk far without his leg swelling up. "Massey should have done more studying before they did this," he says, leaning against the kitchen counter in his small, dark house. "They don't care about people, about what happens to them."

On the evening of January 19th, 2006, Blankenship was at a reception with some railroad executives at the Greenbrier, the grandest resort hotel in the state. The Greenbrier is one of his favorite haunts, a place where he can have a drink and unwind with his fellow CEOs. Sometime around 6 p.m., Drexel Short, a senior vice president at Massey, motioned to Blankenship to step into the hallway. There had been a devastating fire at a coal mine run by Aracoma Coal, a Massey subsidiary. Ten men working in the deepest section of the mine had donned their respirators and managed to grope their way to safety through the smoke-filled tunnels. But two men who had become separated from the group were missing.

Blankenship talked briefly with Short about how to handle the situation. Then he went back into the reception at the posh resort and rejoined his pals. Two days later, the two men — Don Bragg, 33, and Elvis Hatfield, 46 — were found dead in the mine, overcome by the smoke.

Blankenship went to the church where families of the miners were holding vigil, but he didn't offer his condolences. "He didn't say a word to me," recalled Bragg's wife, Delorice, a mother of two who worked as a nurse at the local hospital. "In fact, he avoided looking at me." It was the only time she saw him during the entire ordeal.

Delorice had been born and raised in coal country; she understood that mining was a dangerous job. But in the weeks after Bragg's death, she heard from friends who worked in the mines that Massey was always cutting corners on safety, pushing for more coal. A subsequent investigation showed that the fire had been caused by an improperly maintained conveyor belt. In the previous year, Massey had racked up more than 90 safety violations at the mine. "It wasn't a mine fire that killed my husband," Delorice told me not long after the disaster, her eyes hardening. "It was greed."

Massey offered Delorice a small settlement, but she took the company to court, believing that management should be forced to pay for its negligence. During the proceedings, her lawyer unearthed two revealing memos. The first indicated that Blankenship knew personally that there had been a problem with a conveyor belt nearly a week before the fire broke out. In the second, dated three months before the disaster, Blankenship appeared to order the superintendents of Massey's mines to ignore safety concerns in favor of increasing production. "If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal," Blankenship told them. "This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills."

The memo created a furor in the mining community. "Throughout Appalachia, there's tremendous support for the coal industry," says Rupp, the political science professor. "But one thing that they will not tolerate is any compromise to the safety of miners. That is where they draw the line. In West Virginia, if you are seen as someone who willfully puts miners at risk to make a buck, then you are in trouble. It's political dynamite."

In the end, Aracoma Coal pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges in the disaster, including one felony, and paid $4.2 million in penalties. The company also admitted that one of the violations — the failure to replace a key ventilation wall — "resulted in the deaths" of Bragg and Hatfield. But as part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to pursue any charges against any Massey executives, including Blankenship.

Delorice Bragg was furious — and not just because Blankenship had shown up for his deposition in his Bentley. In her view, prosecutors had given him a get-out-of-jail-free card. "If Massey executives have done nothing wrong and bear no criminal responsibility for the fire that killed Don and Elvis, then why do they need the deal?" she asked when the plea bargain was announced in court. To Delorice, the message was clear: In West Virginia, nobody messes with Don Blankenship.


T
he entrance to the Upper Big Branch mine is just off a twisting, narrow road that cuts through the Coal River Valley near Whitesville, West Virginia. It is one of the most valuable underground mines that Massey owns, not only because the coal seam is six feet thick — a rarity in Appalachia these days, when many seams have been mined out — but because its high-grade coal commands a premium on the market. Massey employed nearly 200 miners to work in three shifts around the clock, running an enormous, high-tech machine that moves back and forth across the mine's wall like a giant meat slicer, shearing off coal. "They mined a million dollars worth of coal a day in there," says Gary Quarles, a Massey miner whose son worked at Upper Big Branch.

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