Meet Mr. Mining Disaster

Even before the explosion in West Virginia that killed 25 of his company's employees, Don Blankenship was a Hollywood-caliber villain. Clara Bingham on a coal executive with a seeming disregard for worker safety.

04.08.10 11:37 PM ET

For the past five years, I’ve watched Don Blankenship like a hawk.

Several reporting trips to West Virginia’s devastated coal fields have led me to an irresistible and macabre fascination with the state’s richest and most politically powerful coal baron. Blankenship’s rags-to-riches story is colorful, and his belligerence is infuriating. Hollywood couldn’t have invented a better villain than this CEO of Massey Energy.

Massey has paid more in fines for worker-safety and environmental violations than any coal company in the country.

For years he has shocked local environmentalists and mine-safety experts with his apparent disregard for the law, and now he is on the national stage at the center of the worst coal-mine accident in 25 years—the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 25 workers.

As rescue workers recover bodies and family and friends mourn the dead, outsiders who have not made West Virginia and its coal-heavy politics their hobby have begun connecting dots that draw a clear picture of Don Blankenship—with horns on top of his head.

Blankenship likes to portray himself as a rogue local mine operator with tough-guy hillbilly antics. When approached for an interview in a parking lot by an ABC camera crew, Blankenship pushed away the camera and threatened the crew with, “If you’re going to take pictures of me, you’re liable to get shot.”

Of course, he’s proud of having been shot at himself, when he busted the unions in 1984, and he has a bullet-scarred TV in his office to prove it.

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He acted more like a third-world dictator than an American CEO when he spent lavishly to help defeat a sitting state Supreme Court justice—thereby helping to elect one more favorable to his cause—and vacationed in Monte Carlo with another judge. This local son of a single mother who worked his way up the ranks of the largest coal company in West Virginia pulled in $27 million in 2009, while cutting his employees’ salaries by 6 percent and laying off more than 600 workers. He calls global warming a “hoax and a Ponzi scheme,” and Rolling Stone lists Massey Energy as one of the country’s 17 biggest “climate killers.”

And we haven’t even gotten to the citations yet. Massey has paid more in fines for worker-safety and environmental violations than any coal company in the country. In 2008, the company was cited for more than 4,600 cases of illegally dumping pollution into local waterways, and the EPA levied the largest civil penalty ever under the Clean Water Act against Massey, fining them $20 million. Also in 2008, the Mine Safety and Health Administration assessed Massey $2.5 million in criminal fines for 1,300 safety violations and the death of two workers in the Aracoma mine fire. Massey also paid $1.7 million in civil fines. (Of the Upper Big Branch disaster, Blankenship told ABC News: "There's dangers in everything and we're trying to minimize that danger as best we can.") Massey has appealed most of the fines levelled against it. And in an interview with the West Virginia MetroNews radio network, Blankenship said, “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process.”

In response to a request for comment from Blankenship, a Massey spokesman issued the following statement: “Mr. Blankenship will not be available for interviews today because he is still focused on the rescue operation and on spending time with the families."

I first noticed the breadth of Massey’s political power when I went to West Virginia five years ago to write about Jack Spadaro, a veteran Mine Safety and Health Administration official who was fired for blowing the whistle on Massey Energy’s collusion with the Bush administration.

Spadaro was nearing the end of an investigation of the biggest man-made environmental disaster east of the Mississippi, a 300 million-gallon coal-sludge flood in Inez, Kentucky, that occurred at dawn on October 11, 2000. After George Bush’s inauguration in January 2001, the investigation was cut short. Spadaro blew the whistle and was fired two years later on trumped-up charges. MSHA fined Massey a pittance: $5,600.  What Spadaro didn’t know at the time was that Massey had given $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, chaired by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, husband of the new Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. (Subsequent reviews of Spadaro's claims found that the investigation had indeed backed off on several charges against Massey, and that oversight had been lax, but upheld the report's ultimate findings as "fair and accurate.")

For the next seven years, the Bush administration defanged both the EPA and MSHA—gutting safety and environmental regulations, which leads us to where we are now. The Upper Big Branch mine had double the number of safety citations in 2009 than the previous year and among them were 50 “unwarrantable failure violations,” the most serious kind.

“When you have 50 unwarrantable failures you’re way past a red flag—you’re in a crisis situation,” mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard told me. “It’s an intolerable situation which indicates an utter disregard for safety.”

But as the toxic streams and topless mountains multiply, the business community has embraced Don Blankenship and put him on the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. You would think that Blankenship’s board, which consists of prominent business figures like the former head of the National Security Council and CIA Deputy Director Council Bobby Inman and former SEC commissioner and chief counsel of News Corp. International Barbara Thomas Judge, would have intervened by now.

Bank of America and J.P. Morgan showed some spine recently by refusing to finance coal-mining companies that engage in mountaintop removal—Massey’s Appalachian specialty. But chances are Blankenship’s business activities will continue unchecked.

“I don’t think anything will happen to Blankenship,” Oppegard predicted. “He makes an obscene amount of money, and as long as the bottom line for Massey Energy is healthy, I think he will be well-compensated.”

Clara Bingham is the co-author of Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law and author of Women on the Hill: Challenging the Culture of Congress. A former Newsweek correspondent who covered the first Bush White House, Bingham has also written for Vanity Fair, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Washington Monthly, and Talk.