The Dark Lord of Coal Country

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All of which raises a legitimate question about federal regulators: If Upper Big Branch was a disaster waiting to happen — full of coal dust, choked with dangerous levels of methane, a tinderbox waiting to ignite — why didn't federal inspectors shut the mine down? "Because nobody shuts one of Don Blankenship's mines down," says miner Gary Quarles. "It has never happened. Everyone knows when mine inspectors are coming, you clean things up for a few minutes, make it look good, then you go back to the business of running coal. That's how things work at Massey. When inspectors write a violation, the company lawyers challenge it in court. It's all just a game. Don Blankenship does what he wants."

But if the mine was so dangerous, why didn't the miners themselves speak out? Because if they did, they would lose their jobs. "No one felt they could go to management and express their fears," a miner named Stanley Stewart testified after the disaster. "We knew that we'd be marked men and the management would look for ways to fire us. Maybe not that day, or that week, but somewhere down the line, we'd disappear. We'd seen it happen. I told my wife I felt like I was working for the Gestapo at times."

Ten days after the disaster, MSHA released a preliminary report that suggested the obvious: The blast was likely caused by an explosive combination of methane and coal dust. It will be months before the agency concludes its investigation, and even longer before federal prosecutors decide whether to pursue criminal charges against Massey. But it is highly unlikely that Blankenship will ever see the inside of a prison cell. The coal industry has more than a century of experience in structuring its companies to shield its executives from criminal liability, and Blankenship continues to disavow any responsibility for the deadly explosion at Upper Big Branch. Although he refused to talk with Rolling Stone for this article, Blankenship recently told industry analysts that he has "a totally clear conscience" about the tragedy and does not believe that Massey "contributed in any way" to the disaster.

But whatever happens in court, Blankenship's days as the king of coal are over. The era of Big Coal is coming to a close in West Virginia. Even Senator Byrd, the biggest booster the industry has ever known, admitted as much before his death earlier this year. "The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop-removal mining or other environmental regulations," Byrd warned, "but rather from rigid mind-sets, depleting coal reserves and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it."

Blankenship still holds an iron grip on Massey's board of directors. "He's the embodiment of an imperial CEO," says one expert on corporate governance. But the board may soon find itself forced to choose between Blankenship and the company's survival. In early November, the Labor Department moved to shut down a Massey mine in Kentucky that has racked up nearly 2,000 safety violations in the past two years. Pressure from environmental activists has forced big lenders like JP Morgan Chase to decline financing for mountaintop-removal operations, which could hurt Massey's bottom line. And big shareholders are beginning to turn against the company. "The mine disaster was an eye-opening event for us," says Brian Bartow, general counsel for the California State Teachers' Retirement System, a large pension fund that is a major holder in Massey stock. "We re-examined the risks that the company was running in the way it does business. In our view, it has a lot in common with the subprime mortgage crisis — there are a lot of risks here that Massey is not acknowledging."

I ask Bartow if he believes Blankenship should resign. "He should," he says. "He clearly doesn't get it."

Blankenship could still orchestrate a smooth exit for himself, perhaps by selling Massey to a rival company. But however his career comes to an end, his story is a deeply tragic one. Given his local roots and his business acumen, he might have helped West Virginia turn toward the future and imagine itself as something more than a landscape to be raped and pillaged by greedy industrialists. Instead, he has become just another coal baron, a symbol of all the worst impulses of American capitalism.

"One thing that is hard to take about Don Blankenship is how he betrayed his own people," says Bruce Stanley, the lawyer who grew up in Mingo County. "West Virginians have always looked at their plight and blamed outsiders: 'It's the coal barons and lumber kings from the North who have come in and stolen our resources, left us poor and broken.' But Blankenship is a Mingo County boy. He took over control of a coal company and rose to the top — and it turned him into an asshole. Blankenship could have easily been a hero, not a villain. He could have said to the people of Appalachia, 'Let me show you how to pick yourself up by your bootstraps. Let me show you how to make something of yourself.' Instead he said, 'Fuck it — I'm king.' "

If any of this troubles Blankenship, he doesn't let on. By his own accounting, the bottom line provides all the proof he needs of his virtue. "I don't care what people think," he once said during a talk to a gathering of Republican Party leaders in West Virginia. "At the end of the day, Don Blankenship is going to die with more money than he needs."

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