Disgraced coal baron Blankenship of Massey Energy symbolized lethal greed
A dedication to the bottom line drove Don Blankenship's rapid rise in Massey Energy Co., and his dedication appears to be the linchpin of the government's prosecution of Blankenship for the deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.
In a four-count indictment, federal prosecutors cite multiple instances when Blankenship, 64, scolded mine management for slowing production to address safety issues or violations cited by inspectors from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Blankenship's longtime critics recognize the pattern.
“If he felt he could make more money by breaching a contract or (violating safety and environmental standards), it was automatic. He did it,” Pittsburgh attorney David Fawcett said. He represented Harman Mining Co. and Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. in several lawsuits challenging Blankenship's business dealings.
The indictment stemming from the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion accuses Blankenship of conspiring to violate MSHA regulations, impeding safety inspectors, lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission and securities fraud.
Blankenship and his lawyer, William W. Taylor III, could not be reached for comment. When the government announced the indictment, Taylor called Blankenship “a tireless advocate for mine safety” and said the charges are payback by bureaucrats he criticized.
“He will not yield to their effort to silence him,” Taylor said. “He will not be intimidated.”
U.S. District Judge Irene Berger scheduled Blankenship's trial for Jan. 26. If convicted, he could get as many as 31 years in prison.
The judge imposed an extensive gag order in the case.
The face of coal
For more than two decades, Blankenship dominated West Virginia's coal scene.
Although most coal executives restrict their comments to press releases, investor conferences and shareholder meetings, Blankenship held rallies and publicly debated environmentalists.
His willingness to defend coal when it faced multiple environmental challenges endeared him to many people in the industry.
“Even after Upper Big Branch, there were still a lot of people here who said he was right,” said Vernon Haltom, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch, a coalfield citizens group. “He had enormous influence in West Virginia, and I'm not sure he still doesn't.”
Spokesmen for the West Virginia Coal Association and the National Mining Association, the industry's lobbying groups, declined to comment.
Blankenship's ascent began when Massey hired him in 1982 as office manager for its Rawl Sales & Processing Co. subsidiary. Two years later, he was president of the subsidiary and embroiled in a strike that ended when he broke the miners union's grip on the company.
“That's where we all learned about Don,” said Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh lawyer who repeatedly sued Massey and Blankenship on behalf of coalfield residents battling pollution, rival companies and disgruntled corporate customers.
The 1984 strike marked the first of several confrontations between Blankenship and the United Mine Workers of America.
During the 1990s, as Massey president, Blankenship bought unionized mines in the Coal River Valley, shut them down and reopened them as nonunion operations.
“Don was empowered by the war with the union,” Stanley said. “He saw that literally as a life-and-death struggle for himself and those companies.”
Blankenship's dealings with rival businesses could be ruthless, too, observers say.
“He's cool, calculating, candid and intelligent — a very intelligent man. … He's a strong believer in old-fashioned, dog-eat-dog capitalism,” Stanley said.
The Harman Mining Corp. case is a good example.
Harman claimed that Blankenship deliberately acquired another company, broke its contract with Harman, and took steps to drive Harman and its owner, Hugh Caperton, out of business, Fawcett said.
By doing so, Blankenship eliminated one of Massey's competitors in the metallurgical coal market, which sells coal to steelmakers.
Although a jury awarded Harman $50 million in damages in 2002, Blankenship delayed resolution with appeals while spending $2.5 million to elect a judge to the West Virginia Supreme Court. The judge refused to step aside when the case reached the court and cast the deciding vote in favor of Massey.
The Supreme Court overturned that decision, ruling the judge should have recused himself, and the case ended up before a Virginia jury that in May awarded Harman $4 million.
Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel won $219 million in damages because Massey broke an agreement to supply coal.
“When the price of coal went up worldwide, Don Blankenship thought he could make more money shorting Wheeling-Pitt and selling coal on the open market,” Fawcett said.
Atop a mountain in Sprigg, W.Va., is the mansion in which Blankenship lived during much of his time as head of Massey.
He had employees install a water line to the mansion, Stanley said, while Massey's Rawl subsidiary fought claims by more than 700 neighbors that it polluted their drinking wells by pumping at least 1.4 billion gallons of coal slurry underground.
The seven-year legal battle ended when Blankenship resigned and Alpha Natural Resources bought Massey in 2011, Stanley said. Alpha settled the case for $35 million in damages and $5 million to monitor the health of residents.
“It wouldn't have settled” if Blankenship remained in charge, he said.
Chuck Nelson, a former union miner, worked for Massey for six years. He lost his job after helping to organize a protest by fellow residents of Sylvester, W.Va., when a Massey subsidiary blanketed the town with coal dust.
Wind blew the dust from a coal stockpile and conveyor belt on top of a ridge overlooking the town.
“I would come in from working the evening shift, and there would be a half-inch of dust on everything in my house,” Nelson said.
Nelson became one of the few public voices, before the Upper Big Branch explosion, to talk about Blankenship's system of ignoring safety regulations in mines.
“All of them had the same practices,” he said. “Whenever a mine inspector wasn't there, they really cut corners.”
Fall from grace
The Upper Big Branch explosion ended Blankenship's tenure at Massey. By the end of 2010, he had stepped down as chairman and CEO, and shortly afterward, Bristol, Va.-based Alpha bought Massey.
For the next four years, Blankenship made documentaries and wrote blog postings criticizing federal mine regulators and several investigations that concluded safety violations led to the explosion. He claims an inundation of natural gas was the cause.
His continued denial of responsibility changed some people's minds about him, said Vivian Stockman, project coordinator for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition in Huntington, W.Va.
He had many fans when taking on environmentalists and government regulators, she said: “People like confrontation and bluster, and it's popular to tell off the federal government. He certainly tapped into that.”
Then the public saw a side to Blankenship that she and other community activists long had known.
“I think a lot more people identify with the miners who lost their loved ones than this cold-hearted fellow who keeps insisting that he wasn't wrong,” Stockman said. “I felt like when the indictment came down, that was a pretty happy day for a lot of West Virginians.”
Brian Bowling is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-325-4301 or [email protected].