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.
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