This article originally appeared in the December 9th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.
On December 3rd, 2010, 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.
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.
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.
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
Blankenship is a lousy speaker, using the same deadpan tone whether he’s talking about quarterly earnings or busting a union. But he does not mince words. After laughing off global warming as a “hoax,” he moves on to the meat of his talk: the tragedy at Upper Big Branch. Instead of acknowledging any responsibility for the disaster, Blankenship argues that the explosion was an act of God, caused by a buildup of methane that had seeped in through a 50-foot crack in the ground. He blames the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration for contributing to the accident by altering the mine’s ventilation system. “You remember Watergate?” he says. “Today what you have is MSHA-Gate.” He even accuses Joe Main, the respected head of the agency, of giving false testimony to Congress to cover up MSHA’s culpability in the explosion. “What is the difference between Roger Clemens and Joe Main?” he asks, referring to the former Red Sox pitcher who denied using steroids. “We don’t know if Roger lied to Congress. But we know Joe did.”
The line gets a big laugh, but it’s pure horseshit. The entire speech, in fact, is nothing but a desperate attempt to shift blame for the tragedy and obscure the fact that 29 men died violent deaths in large part because Don Blankenship ran what amounted to an outlaw coal mine, racking up more than 500 safety violations and nearly $1 million in fines last year alone. But if any of the coal executives assembled in the country club see it that way, no one speaks up. They want to believe that the coal industry has a bright future, and that Blankenship is nothing more than a tough-talking local boy made good. As he finishes his rant, they give him a standing ovation.
“The thing I admire most about Don Blankenship is that he’s not afraid to tell the truth,” Ben Parker, an engineering student, tells me as the applause fades. “He’s just like Sarah Palin.”
For the past two decades, Don Blankenship has been the undisputed king of coal in West Virginia. Other Big Coal CEOs who operate in Appalachia are business-school types who have offices in other states and leave the dirty work to their minions. Blankenship, by contrast, is a rich hillbilly who believes that God put coal in the ground so that he could mine it, and anyone — or any law — that stands in his way needs to be beaten down, bought off or tied up in court. Blankenship is hated, feared and respected, but nobody wants to tangle with him. “He’s a throwback to the old coal barons of the 19th century,” says Cecil Roberts, the head of the United Mine Workers of America, who has battled Blankenship for nearly 30 years.
From a strictly business point of view, it’s hard to argue with Blankenship’s success: He has taken a sleepy old coal company and built it into the most powerful economic and political machine in Appalachia. Massey Energy and its subsidiaries operate 56 mines in the region, employing nearly 6,000 workers and producing some 40 million tons of coal a year. Even after the disaster at Upper Big Branch hammered the company’s stock, it’s still worth about $4 billion. To the degree that West Virginia’s future is tied to coal, it is also tied to Blankenship: His company owns more than a third of the remaining coal reserves in the region.
Blankenship has never hidden the fact that, when it comes to mining coal, he’ll do whatever it takes to make a buck. “It’s like a jungle, where a jungle is survival of the fittest,” he told a documentary filmmaker in the 1980s. “Unions, communities, people — everybody’s gonna have to learn to accept that in the United States you have a capitalist society, and that capitalism, from a business standpoint, is survival of the most productive.”
In Blankenship’s view, being productive means getting coal out of the ground as fast and cheap as possible, no matter the cost to workers or the environment. “He has been hugely influential in the coal industry in Appalachia,” says a rival coal executive. “He basically transformed a gentlemanly, Democratic, union-based industry, where deals were done on a handshake, into the aggressive, partisan industry that we know today.” Blankenship helped popularize the style of mining known as mountaintop removal, in which the mountains are removed from the coal, rather than the coal from the mountains — a practice that has destroyed 2,000 miles of streams and damaged more than a million acres of forest. He has fought labor unions and federal regulators at every turn, exposing miners to dangerous conditions. And he has injected toxic coal slurry near underground aquifers, a practice that has allegedly sickened hundreds of residents. “All in all, Blankenship has probably caused more suffering than any other human being in Appalachia,” says Roberts.
A right-wing Republican in a traditionally Democratic state, Blankenship has also used his wealth and influence to go after anyone who opposes him. “Unlike the old coal barons, who mostly shunned the limelight, Blankenship is a very flamboyant character,” says Robert Rupp, professor of political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College. When it comes to politics, Blankenship doesn’t waste time twisting arms: Massey spent less than $20,000 on federal lobbying last year and has contributed only $300,000 to federal candidates since 1990. Instead, he goes for a more direct bang for his buck. He spent more than $3 million electing a state Supreme Court judge who would provide a favorable verdict in a lawsuit, funneled nearly $1 million into advertising this year to improve coal’s image, and served on the boards of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association, which has attacked the Obama administration for waging a “regulatory jihad” against coal.
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.”
Blankenship 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.”
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.
Blankenship’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.”
But Caperton kept fighting. Then in January 2008, he got a mysterious break: A plain brown envelope was delivered to his attorney by an unknown person. In it were photographs of Blankenship and Spike Maynard, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, vacationing together on the French Riviera. “The photos were visual evidence of what everyone suspected,” says Caperton. “Blankenship was again trying to influence the court.”
The photos prompted the court to rehear the case. This time around, Maynard agreed to recuse himself — but so did another justice, who had publicly called Blankenship a “clown.” The court once again found in favor of Blankenship. But this time, the case attracted national attention — especially after a crew from ABC News tried to interview Blankenship outside his office. “If you’re going to start taking pictures of me,” he told the crew, shoving the camera away, “you’re liable to get shot.”
Last year, Caperton won a major victory in the case. Citing “extreme” conflict of interest, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state judge whose election was backed by Blankenship should have recused himself from the case. “It was a huge victory for one of the most basic aspects of the rule of law — the right to a fair hearing,” said James Sample of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Yet last year, when the state Supreme Court took up the issue for a third time, it once again found in Blankenship’s favor — this time citing a legal technicality to rule that the West Virginia courts had no jurisdiction in the case.
“It was a travesty of justice at every level,” says Caperton, who has refiled the case in Virginia. In fact, the whole case was so outlandish that John Grisham used it as the basis for the plot in his novel The Appeal. As Grisham told Matt Lauer on the Today Show: “A guy owned a coal company, he got tired of getting sued. He elected his guy to the Supreme Court — and now he didn’t worry about getting sued.”
Blankenship often argues that he is the embodiment of a successful capitalist — that the jobs he provides put food on people’s tables and allow them to buy houses and cars and all the other necessities of modern life. But there is a larger question he doesn’t address: Why, if the coal industry is so good for West Virginia, is there so much sickness, death and economic decline in the state — especially in the very area where Blankenship lives?
David Joe Mollett lives up in Lick Creek, just a few miles from Blankenship’s well-manicured estate. His father went to work in the coal mines when he was 13 years old. The small house where Mollett lives with his sister and his brother is pretty much all that their father left them after decades in the mines. On the once idyllic ridge behind them, a huge Massey operation has begun removing the top of the mountain.
As a kid in the 1980s, Mollett remembers filling up a glass of water at the kitchen sink and seeing black stuff floating in it. “Sometimes it smelled of rotten egg, sometimes it had a rainbow on top,” he recalls. The water came from a well out back; families in the area had been drinking water out of the ground for generations. Now, all of a sudden, they started to get sick. In high school, Mollett got rashes, bad ones, on his back and arms. He had diarrhea, stomachaches. In 2000, he was bombing around on his four-wheeler when he suddenly passed out completely. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors discovered he was in complete kidney failure. He spent three years on dialysis, then finally had a transplant. “The doctor told me that my kidney failed because of the water I’d been drinking,” he says. In addition, two of his sisters suffer from severe kidney problems.
The Molletts aren’t the only ones getting sick. More than 700 people in the immediate vicinity have reported health problems that they believe are related to water from their wells, and four have died from their ailments. Symptoms range from rashes and ruined kidneys to birth defects and brain cancer.
According to a lawsuit filed by Mollett and his neighbors, the cause of their sickness is clear: Massey, they say, poisoned their drinking water. Back when Blankenship was running Rawl Sales, he needed a cheap, quick way to get rid of millions of gallons of coal slurry — the toxic runoff that comes from washing coal to remove impurities. The slurry is laden with a host of heavy metals known to be deadly to humans — arsenic, lead, cadmium, manganese. “Blankenship decided it would be simpler and cheaper to inject the slurry into old coal mines underground,” says Kevin Thompson, a lawyer representing Mollett and others in the community.
During the 1980s, the company injected more than 1.4 billion gallons of slurry underground — seven times the amount of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP disaster this spring. According to the lawsuit, Massey knew that the ground around the injection sites was cracked, which would allow the toxic waste to leach into nearby drinking water. But injecting the slurry underground saved Massey millions of dollars a year. “The BP oil spill was an accident,” says Thompson. “This was an intentional environmental catastrophe.” Massey denies any wrongdoing in the case. But after Blankenship started pumping the slurry underground, he took steps to make sure that he and his family did not suffer. Around the time that his neighbors were starting to get sick, Massey paid to build a waterline to bring clean, treated water directly to Blankenship’s house from Matewan, a few miles away. Yet he never offered to provide the water to his neighbors, some of whom can see his house from their windows.
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.
The 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.
With so much profitable coal to be had, the focus was on productivity at any cost. The safety record at the mine was abysmal — and it was getting worse. Last year, citations by the Mine Safety Health Administration at Upper Big Branch doubled to more than 500 — including 200 for “significant and substantial” violations that MSHA considers “reasonably likely to result in a reasonably serious injury or illness.” Most telling of all, MSHA issued 61 withdrawal orders at the mine, temporarily shutting down parts of the operation 54 times in 2009 and seven times in 2010. Such a high number of withdrawal orders is virtually unheard of in the industry — yet federal inspectors, not known for being tough on outlaw coal operations, failed to close down the mine. “It’s like someone driving drunk 61 times,” said Celeste Monforton, a former policy adviser at MSHA.
The most serious violations involved the ventilation system, a complex operation that requires miners to constantly move curtains around to funnel fresh air into the mine. But at Upper Big Branch, supervisors pushed miners to cut corners and evade inspectors. “When an MSHA inspector came to the section, we’d hang the curtain — but as soon as the inspector left, the curtain came down again,” miner Jeffrey Harris later testified. “Some people would tell the inspectors about these kinds of ventilation changes, which were made for their benefit. But the inspectors told us, ‘We need to catch it,’ and that didn’t happen very often.” In parts of the mine, Harris added, “the air was so thick you could hardly see in front of you.”
The explosion occurred just as miners were changing shifts around 3 p.m. on Monday, April 5th. The force of the blast, which was likely caused by high levels of methane ignited by a spark, ripped apart massive mining machines as if they were a child’s toys. The fire turned 90-degree corners and rounded a block of coal 1,000 feet wide, killing everyone in its path. The destruction was so bad that rescuers walked past the bodies of four missing miners on the first day without noticing them.
In the days after the disaster, Blankenship could be seen heading in and out of the company building where families waited for news, his eyes fixed on the ground, a mix of what looked like guilt and anger on his hangdog face. His presence only served to enrage family members. “He just stood there and let others do the talking,” says Quarles, whose son died in the explosion. In interviews, Blankenship denied that his mines are more dangerous than others, and dismissed the high number of safety citations at Upper Big Branch. “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process,” he said.
For the first time in his life, Blankenship suddenly found himself in the midst of a crisis that he could not buy his way out of. The media coverage of the disaster was relentless, and industry insiders wondered openly if he would have to step down as CEO of Massey. Even longtime champions of Big Coal began to use him as a punching bag. During a Senate hearing on the tragedy, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia — perhaps the single most valuable ally the coal industry had — took the extraordinary step of personally rebuking Blankenship for his recklessness and hypocrisy. “I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers,” Byrd said. “The Upper Big Branch mine had an alarming — an alarming — record. Shame!”
Blankenship took the abuse from Byrd — and then got on with the business of being Don Blankenship. He recruited a team of heavyweight consultants from the Bush era, including lawyer Robert Luskin, who represented Karl Rove in the Valerie Plame spy case; a PR firm called Public Strategies, run by former Bush communications chief Dan Bartlett; and Dave Lauriski, the head of MSHA under Bush. Together, they cobbled together a survival strategy that Tom Sanzillo, a financial analyst who specializes in coal, calls a “blood war” against MSHA. “His goal,” says Sanzillo, “is to turn the tables on investigators and turn the Upper Big Branch disaster into a referendum against the federal government.”
The first prong of the strategy is to delay and discredit the investigation. Massey tried to challenge MSHA for refusing to allow the company into the mine to collect its own evidence, but a judge dismissed the complaint as grandstanding; it was as if a murder suspect had demanded that police grant him access to a crime scene so he could examine the bloodstains himself. But the ruse allowed Blankenship to suggest that MSHA was conducting the investigation in a secretive way — a charge that fit well into the larger narrative he was constructing about the disaster.
The story that Blankenship is peddling has taken several turns. First he argued that MSHA itself was responsible for the explosion at Upper Big Branch because its ventilation plan didn’t allow methane that had accumulated in the mine to be removed quickly enough. Then, on November 17th, he suddenly theorized that the explosion had been caused not by methane but by natural gas, which is rarely a problem in coal mines. In short, he suggested, the disaster had been unavoidable.
It’s a good story — but it has little to do with reality. For starters, testimony from miners makes clear that high levels of methane were a persistent problem at Upper Big Branch. Two miners told The New York Times that the mine had been evacuated for dangerously high methane levels three times in the previous two months. “Finding explosive levels of methane regularly,” one miner wrote nine months before the explosion, documenting conditions in the mine. “Section has low air. Company constantly trying to fool inspectors.”
What’s more, Blankenship’s version of events conveniently ignores the role of coal dust in amplifying the explosion. Coal dust is a constant problem in underground mines. It’s usually handled by good housekeeping, and by scattering limestone dust in problem areas to neutralize the coal’s volatility. Shane Harvey, the general counsel for Massey, insists that Upper Big Branch was adequately dusted before the blast. But of 1,800 samples collected by MSHA after the explosion, only 400 had been properly treated for coal dust. Even more damning, logs of inspections by mine employees show that eight conveyor belts contained excessive amounts of coal dust only hours before the explosion.
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.”