After 29 men died in his company’s mine, Don Blankenship is fighting to stay out of prison. But he’s already won the battle to convert coal country to his brand of conservative politics.
THE PEOPLE OF the Kentucky and West Virginia borderland, where Don Blankenship’s family has lived for generations, have always clustered, out of tradition and necessity, along river valleys and in low-lying hollows amid the nubby Appalachian peaks. The winding roads there, crumbling under the weight of overloaded Mack trucks, are lined with trailers like the one Blankenship grew up in, many with “Friend of Coal” placards in their windows.
But at the peak of his 18-year reign as the CEO of coal giant Massey Energy—as if in a symbolic nod to his rise from hardscrabble roots—Blankenship erected a four-story villa that evoked a fairy-tale castle on a Kentucky mountaintop. It was a short helicopter ride from his primary home, a gated estate on the other side of the Tug Fork River. From a white tower atop his Massey-owned mountain retreat, Blankenship could look out on the coal yards and misty hollows of West Virginia’s Mingo County like a king surveying his domain.
Blankenship earned his way to this summit by reducing many of the nearby mountaintops to heaps of gravel and harvesting the bituminous seams inside them to nearly triple his company’s revenue. Heavyset and balding, with a slug of a mustache and anthracite eyes, he was a harsh taskmaster whose cutthroat management style transformed what was once a modest family business into the region’s largest coal producer. In the process, he rose from a small-town accountant to a political heavyweight who dined at the White House and rocked out with Ted Nugent.
Blankenship cultivated an image as a Mingo County son made good—a good ol’ boy who ran a multibillion-dollar company from a double-wide trailer. And he saw himself as a heroic figure who brought jobs to the depressed enclaves of his native West Virginia. But with his gaze fixed on the bottom line, Blankenship crushed the mine workers union that was baptized in his backyard.
Voluminous court records and government investigations show that he presided over a company that padded its profits by running some of the most dangerous workplaces in the country. Massey polluted the waterways that had sustained Blankenship’s forebears, rained coal dust on the schoolyards where his miners’ children played, and subjected the men he grew up with in southern West Virginia to unsafe working conditions.
A mascot of the coal industry’s worst excesses, Blankenship pumped millions of dollars into West Virginia’s political system to promote an anti-regulatory agenda and curry favor with state lawmakers and officials. But Massey’s pursuit of profits at any cost ultimately proved to be Blankenship’s downfall. When, on April 5, 2010, an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 workers—the worst mining disaster in the United States in 40 years—prosecutors began slowly building a case against the powerful mogul.
Last November, four years after Blankenship left Massey and the company was bought for $8.5 billion by Virginia-based coal company Alpha Natural Resources, a federal grand jury indicted him for allegedly conspiring to commit mine safety violations, conspiring to cover up those violations, and providing false statements about his company’s safety record. He could face more than 30 years behind bars.
Blankenship, who has pleaded not guilty, is slated to go on trial on October 1. For the better part of the past year, he’s been restricted by a judge’s order to the eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia counties where he has spent most of his life—a prisoner among those he’s allegedly wronged.
The trial’s timing is foreboding: Dwindling reserves and cheap natural gas, with a nudge from new environmental regulations imposed by the Obama administration, have tightened the noose around Appalachian coal. In August, Alpha Natural Resources filed for bankruptcy. Blankenship’s prosecution could be a canary for something bigger—the death knell of an industry that has both taken lives and sustained them for as long as anybody in these parts can remember.
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