Coal Tattoo

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

If you’ve got access to a hard copy of Rolling Stone magazine or a subscription to their online edition, you might want to check out the new profile of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. Jeff Goodell’s story is headlined, “The Dark Lord of Coal Country,” and the introduction says:

Don Blankenship grew up poor in the h0llows of West Virginia. But as the richest and most powerful coal baron in Appalachia, he has destroyed the region’s mountains, polluted its waters, and overseen the worst mining disaster in 40 years.

Jeff starts out the article by describing a recent appearance by Blankenship to give a speech to an industry gathering in Bluefield, where the Massey CEO gave his standard attack on MSHA as being at least partly to blame for the deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.  But Jeff opines:

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 last year alone.

Describing Blankenship, the article says:

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 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.

And despite Blankenship’s frequent rants against environmentalists and government regulators, Jeff astutely notes:

The real reason that the coal industry in West Virginia is 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.

The article provides more interesting tidbits from Blankenship’s biography, and gives the first real big-time exposure to the ongoing water contamination suit in the communities around Rawl in Mingo County. And, Jeff goes on to describe the aftermath of Upper Big Branch:

For the first time in his life, Blankenship suddenly found himself in the midst of a crisis that he could not buy his way out of. The media coverage of the disaster was relentless, and industry insiders wondered openly if he would have to step down as CEO of Massey. Even longtime champions of Big Coal began to use him as a punching bag. During a Senate hearing on the tragedy, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia — perhaps the single most valuable ally the coal industry had — took the extraordinary step of personally rebuking Blankenship for his recklessness and hypocrisy. “I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers,” Byrd said. “The Upper Big Branch mine had an alarming — an alarming — record. Shame!”

Blankenship took the abuse from Byrd — and then got on with the business of being Don Blankenship. He recruited a team of heavyweight consultants from the Bush era, including lawyer Robert Luskin, who represented Karl Rove in the Valerie Plame spy case; a PR firm called Public Strategies, run by former Bush communications chief Dan Bartlett; and Dave Lauriski, the head of MSHA under Bush.

Regarding the ongoing criminal investigation at Upper Big Branch, the article says:

… it is highly unlikely that Blankenship will ever see the inside of a prison cell. The coal industry has more than a century of experience in structuring its companies to shield its executives from criminal liability, and Blankenship continues to disavow any responsibility for the deadly explosion at Upper Big Branch. Although he refused to talk with Rolling Stone for this article, Blankenship recently told industry analysts that he has “a totally clear conscience” about the tragedy and does not believe that Massey “contributed in any way” to the disaster.

The article concludes:

… Whatever happens in court, Blankenship’s days as the king of coal are over. The era of Big Coal is coming to a close in West Virginia. Even Senator Byrd, the biggest booster the industry has ever known, admitted as much before his death earlier this year. “The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations,” Byrd warned, “but rather from rigid mind-sets, depleting coal reserves and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.”

Blankenship could still orchestrate a smooth exist for himself, perhaps by selling Massey to a rival company. But however his career comes to an end, his story is a deeply tragic one. Given his local roots and his business acumen, he might have helped West Virginia turn toward the future and imagine itself as something more than a landscape to be raped and pillaged by greedy industrialists. Instead, he has become just another coal baron, a symbol of all the worst impulses of American capitalism.