November 29, 2010 12:00 PM ET
Carolyn Kaster/AP Images
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.
This article appears in the December 9, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available now on newsstands and in the online archive.
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.
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.
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.
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."