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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The King of Coal On Trial

Air Date: Week of

Don Blankenship (Photo: Rainforest Action Network, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is on trial in connection with the deadly 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia. Mother Jones writer Tim Murphy recently profiled the coal baron, and speaks with host Steve Curwood about how this one man came to gain and then lose so much power over West Virginia’s economy, politics, and environment.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Coal powered the industrial world for almost two centuries but in the US it’s now in a precipitous decline, undercut by cheaper natural gas from fracking and its climate and health hazards. Miners have died by the thousands underground, and on April 5th, 2010 the worst American mine disaster in 40 years occurred at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. A huge explosion ripped through the mine, destroying the rail lines underground and killing 29 of the 31 men working there. West Virginia’s governor, Joe Manchin, went to the scene.

MANCHIN: Rails, train rails that go back in look like they’ve been twisted like a pretzel. That’s horrific. That’s an explosion that — it’s just beyond proportion.

CURWOOD: In that disaster, miner Tommy Davis lost his brother, his nephew – and his son Cory. He remembered the last time he saw his boy.

DAVIS: I kind of turned around and walked away from him, he’s like, ‘What, Dad?’ I said, ‘I love you, buddy’. He said, ‘I love you, too, Old Man. Now I’m gonna go cut me some coal.’ That’s my last words I heard from him.

CURWOOD: Well, Don Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, is now on trial in connection with that mine catastrophe. Blankenship was one of the most powerful coal barons, who brooked no delays, and opposed federal safety regulation of his industry, as he told thousands of miners and their families at a Labor Day picnic in 2009.

BLANKENSHIP: As someone who has overseen the mining of more coal than anyone else in the history of central Appalachia, I know that the safety and health of coal miners is my most important job. I don’t need Washington politicians to tell me that, and neither do you.


BLANKENSHIP: But, I also know, I also know that Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miner safety. The very idea that they care more about coal miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming.

CURWOOD: Don Blankenship speaking in 2009. Well, to mark the start of the former CEO’s criminal trial for allegedly lying about violating safety standards at the Upper Big Branch mine, Tim Murphy, a writer for Mother Jones magazine, published a profile called The Fall of the King of Coal. Tim Murphy joins us now. Welcome to Living on Earth.

MURPHY: Thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: So you call your piece "The Fall of the King of Coal". Who is Don Blankenship and how did he become the king of coal country in the first place?

MURPHY: Don Blankenship is, I think, as he would like you to believe, a simple man from Mingo County, West Virginia, which is one of the poorest counties in the United States along the border with Kentucky along the Tug Fork River. His mom ran a gas station and pulled the family up by its bootstraps. He was an accountant who worked at a coal mine to pay his way through college and then ending up rising through the ranks of a company called Massey which at one point was a family coal company, and with Blankenship at its helm it grew into the largest coal producer in central Appalachia and one of the largest coal companies in United States. And Blankenship did all this by running it essentially with an iron fist and starting to control, developing control of the political culture of West Virginia. He helped build the West Virginia Republican Party basically up from scratch to the point where it now runs the state legislature and has a number of national elected positions in the state. And he did this also by flouting federal mine safety rules and by crushing the labor unions. So he very handily built a pretty notorious reputation, even, you know, in an industry that has not always had a great reputation.

CURWOOD: Now, in this piece you have a picture of Blankenship's estate, and it is this giant castle atop a beautiful West Virginia mountain, but, of course, he was known for tearing off the tops of those same mountains for strip mining. What was Don Blankenship's attitude towards the environment there in West Virginia?

Memorial for the miners who lost their lives in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster (Photo: Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

MURPHY: I don't think he really put too much thought into the environment in Massey's case. They have a number of former mountain top removal sites otherwise known as surface mining sites that have been reclaimed which is the word that they use, and essentially you spray a chemical product called hydro-seed that plants all these non-native grasses on what has gone from being a scenic Appalachian knob into something more like a golf course. So that's essentially the end product of the mountain top removal site if it's effective, but in Massey Energy's case, some of their subsidiaries also had a lot of issues in terms of what happened with their coal waste. So, for instance, one of the largest environmental disasters in American history was in Eastern Kentucky just across the river from where Don Blankenship grew up and in that case the site owned by Massey had a ton of coal slurry that had been contained. It's essentially like a dam of coal waste, and the dam burst and it went out through an underground abandoned mine that was also owned by the company and ended up shutting down the water supply in about 10 counties in eastern Kentucky.

CURWOOD: Now, Don Blankenship was also known for his hostility towards organized labor. What was his relationship like with the coal miner's union, the United Mine Workers of America?

MURPHY: There's an irony to his relationship to the United Mine Workers, which is that the union really had its baptism in his backyard. He grew up just down the street from the town of Maitwan, West Virginia, which has been immortalized on the big screen, as really one of the pivotal moments in American labor history where there was an open air shoot out between United Mine Worker sympathizers and agents of the state and the mine companies. So there was actual bloodshed in the area's history over the right to organize, and Blankenship comes into this context and he really makes his name with the company. He started off as an office manager, and he was the president of a small subsidiary at the time, and the United Mine Workers declared a strike against Massey, and Blankenship ended up sort of at ground zero of the strike, and he held the line for about nine or 10 months. He likes to point to a TV that he owns that's covered in bullet holes that he says came from the union. It was an often-violent encounter between the company and its guards and the labor union. But at the end of the strike, Don Blankenship had won, and essentially from that point forward Massey was not a friendly place for unions.

CURWOOD: So, now Don Blankenship is on trial for a horrific disaster that occurred at his Upper Big Branch mine five years ago. What happened?

MURPHY: What happened according to MSHA, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, is that there was an accumulation of gas in the mine, and a piece of shearing equipment hit a spark. The shearing equipment is used to cut through the long wall section of the mine to get at the coal seam. There's an enormous amount of friction there. If it's not maintained properly then you're going to get sparks coming from it, the piece of machinery hitting the wall. In this case that spark created an explosion in the mine.

CURWOOD: I understand that the safety equipment that would've detected the large amount of gas in the mine was somehow disabled or dysfunctional.

Kayford mountaintop removal mine site in West Virginia (Photo: Kate Wellington, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

MURPHY: Yeah, and according to the federal government and according to the state's own independent investigation of the mine after-the-fact, virtually everything that could've gone wrong in this situation really did go wrong. There were issues with the safety equipment. There were issues with the state of the mine. It was just covered in combustible coal dust which you're required by law to clean up, and so the conditions of the mine were not right, the conditions for what happens if something goes wrong was not right, and the end result was that 29 people died and it was the worst mine disaster in 40 years.

CURWOOD: What was the company's attitude towards workplace safety? What was that like?

MURPHY: The company has really made a point during Blankenship's tenure to emphasize that safety was its number one priority. The term that Blankenship and the company used was S1 - that was their policy - safety is number one. They implemented a number of things that sort of gave the illusion of safety. So, for instance, they had a program that was essentially a rewards program for miners and if you continued to accumulate days without an injury on the job that didn't cause you to miss work, you would accumulate points, and you could take those points and bring them essentially to the company store and buy things like hunting gear.

The result, of course, was a perverse incentive and so if you had an injury at a Massey mine, it was really an incentive from your colleagues to not report injuries so that you can use these points to get stuff that you couldn't otherwise get. There were cases I think of miners getting hurt on the job and Massey management following them to the emergency room and requesting that they not take time off from work informing them instead, you know, that they can simply sit in the break room all day but they just didn't want to see their numbers take a hit from the lost time. They were notorious, especially under Don Blankenship's tenure, for relentless focus on the bottom line. He demanded reports from his mine superintendents about every half hour and if he saw that coal wasn't moving in a mine, say because they were working on a piece of safety construction, he would get on the phone. In the case of the Upper Big Branch mine where this disaster happened, that phone was literally a red phone. It was as if they're getting a call from the premier, and when you get a call from Don Blankenship, according to various workers who have worked in these mines and testified to the federal government, you didn't ignore what he said, you he went and did exactly that.

CURWOOD: Now you quote in your article...you quote Don Blankenship at a rally seven months before the Upper Big Branch disaster as saying "Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miner safety. The very idea that they care more about coal miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming." So I take it he wasn't a big fan of federal regulations.

MURPHY: He wasn't, and I think that really gets to the core of his significance in the era in which he operated. He managed to take a state in which mining was heavily unionized - a state that had voted democratic since the New Deal - and he managed to hammer home again and again and again that the reasons for the decline of the coal industry came from Washington and that it came from regulations, and that was kind of at the core of his political message and something that he continued to hammer on even up until the point where he was indicted. He spent a lot of money in the political area to push his anti-regulatory message while his companies were in some cases really making the case for regulation.

CURWOOD: And I gather he was quite a promoter of skepticism or denial around global warming?

MURPHY: He was, yes, I think his comments sound very similar to those of someone like Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe. After he left Massey Energy and shortly before he was indicted, he put out his own documentary, which pushed global warming skepticism. It was called Rigged Session and it made the case essentially that EPA regulations and those kinds of things were driving America's economy into the gutter. But at the core of that argument is that there's no point to the regulations and that things like global warming are really just a hoax perpetrated by folks like Al Gore.

CURWOOD: So he does get indicted, as powerful as his political connections are as such. A federal indictment is brought against him. What's the case like against Don Blankenship?

West Virginia (Photo: Jim Brickett, Flickr CC)

MURPHY: Well, I should say, the indictment in itself is kind of unprecedented. In almost every instance where there’s been prosecution in the aftermath of a disaster, they've gone after a mine foreman or something like that. So on one level the case against Blankenship is something that's new and might give people in southern and West Virginia a lot of hope that the government's finally cracking down, but then if you look at the indictment, the case actually looks a lot different. What they're actually really going after Blankenship on isn't on coal miner deaths. There's nothing about 29 deaths in a coalmine in this indictment or in this case. In fact, Blankenship's lawyers have moved to make that something that isn't even mentioned at the trial because the government isn't doing anything about its Upper Big Branch disaster. What they're trying to send him away for is lying to federal investigators and lying to the SEC about his company's safety record. So it's not that he ran rough coalmines that racked up tons of violations and had a number of fatalities. It's that he wasn't being honest with Wall Street, and that's the one that threatens to send him away for about 26 of the 30 years that he's facing.

CURWOOD: So, let me see if I have this right. He's been indicted because he said things to investors about mine safety that turned out not to be true according to the government. And so the Securities and Exchange Commission comes into play here. I imagine investors are very angry given that the price of coal at least has really just crashed in recent years. Some of the biggest companies have seen almost all of the value of the stock go away.

MURPHY: Yeah, and that's sort of the irony. I was talking to the miners in Matewan, West Virginia, when I was down there and obviously the situation for coal miners is pretty bleak right now, but as they put it, Don Blankenship is reading his company's obituaries in the newspapers that week just because Alpha Natural Resources, which is a company that bought Massey a few years back declared just two months ago. They filed for bankruptcy. So the company that bought Massey for $7.5 billion dollars is now bankrupt and looking to radically restructure its business. So over the last four, five years since Upper Big Branch, the industry has cratered. Hundreds of mines have closed and thousands of workers have been laid off. So in some level the indictment feels sort of like a bookend in the current age of King Coal.

CURWOOD: Tim Murphy is a writer for Mother Jones. His latest piece is called The Fall of the King of Coal. Thanks so much Tim for taking the time with us.

MURPHY: Thank you.



Tim Murphy’s story on Don Blankenship

MSHA report on the mine disaster and corrective action plans

Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster

Feds Add Coal-Dust Coverup Allegation To Mine CEO's Indictment

Coal Baron’s Trial May Hinge on His Secretly Recorded Conversations

Massey Energy’s S-1 Safety Program

Alpha Natural Resources Bankruptcy

Mountaintop Removal


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