Five years ago, in the worst mining disaster in America since 1970, a fire in the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia left 29 miners dead. The catastrophe ultimately led to the folding of coal giant Massey Energy and the downfall of its dictatorial and egomaniacal chief, Don Blankenship. As Federal investigators build their case against Blankenship, however, a picture has emerged of something far darker: one deranged man running his giant coal company like a personal fief, ignoring all regulations and standards, violently punishing anyone who opposed him, and all the while using his influence to re-orient the political landscape of West Virginia towards the extreme right. His trial for a wide variety of crimes begins on October 1st, and he could spend up to thirty years in prison if found guilty.
Blankenship served as CEO of Massey Energy from 1992 until a few months after the Upper Big Branch disaster in 2010, and under his totalitarian leadership the company was transformed from a small family business to one of the largest coal companies in America. That tremendous growth, however, came as a result of a ruthless corporate culture brought down by the iron-fisted Blankenship that put profits above all else, certainly above workers, safety, and the environment.
Blankenship first made a name for himself in the mining business for his brutal crushing of a United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) strike in 1984 when he was serving as chief of Rawl Sales Inc., a Massey Energy subsidiary that owned the mine where workers were striking over safety violations. Besides hiring non-union replacement workers who would attack the strikers, ringing the mine in razor wire, releasing attack dogs, Blankenship hired armed guards and snipers to shoot at strikers and orchestrated a campaign of violence to bring the union to its knees. The scene was reminiscent of the nearby 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain when anti-union coal companies backed by the National Guard dropped bombs from helicopters on striking coal miners and killed more than 100 people. If even Blair Mountain hadn’t broken the UMWA, Massey Energy did, as within a few months of the end of the strike, the UMWA had all but ceased to exist in Southern West Virginia, Massey’s territory.
Having made a name for himself in strike-busting, Blankenship was appointed CEO of Massey upon its founder’s death in 1992. It was then that the true ruthlessness of his winner-take-all capitalism came to the fore. Workers were often given no more than one day off per month, and sometimes no meal breaks for days on end. They labored in waist-deep water in pitch black tunnels filled with the swirling combustible coal dust that is given off in the mining process. In the ten years prior to the Upper Big Branch disaster, there were 54 deaths in Massey’s facilities and portions of each mine were shut down an average of 48 times, rates roughly 19 times the national average. Internal company documents spoke of the need to put corporate profits “above society in general” and laid out detailed instructions for breaking the spirits of workers and getting around the safety regulations of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Thus by the time of the Upper Big Branch disaster, Blankenship has ensured that there were essentially no safety regulations in Massey’s mines, and no unions to advocate for them, making disaster inevitable. When the fire broke out, there were no operational fire alarms or sprinklers in the Upper Big Branch Mine, there were insufficient emergency exits, and the amount of coal dust in the mine was five times the acceptable level. The 29 miners, mere expendable pawns in Massey and Blankenship’s profit-driven empire, never stood a chance.
Just as Massey was adept at outmaneuvering MSHA regulations, so too did the company avoid all semblance of environmental protection and regulation. Besides blowing the tops off of hundreds of mountains to extract coal, Massey was guilty of a bevy of horrible environmental disasters. In 2000 the company accidentally released a 72-acre reservoir of coal mining sludge that flooded the town of Inez, WV, poured into local rivers, and caused some $58 million in damage in one of the worst environmental disasters in American history. The company intentionally polluted local water supplies by injecting more than 1.4 billion gallons of coal sludge waste into abandoned mines and wells rather than comply with EPA regulations for its safe deposit. Massey has been cited for more than 4,500 violations of the clean water act and releases toxic chemicals into waterways at levels more than 10 times the acceptable amount. Massey plants located near schools and residences spew toxic coal dust into the air and rain it down upon local residents.
Throughout his tenure at Massey, however, Blankenship built himself into a formidable political force, even dining at the White House. He used his power and the billions his corporate gulag brought in to buy off politicians and bring his brand of lunatic right-wing politics to the forefront in West Virginia. Blankenship funneled tens of millions of dollars – amounts unprecedented for an individual donor in local elections – into West Virginia politics in order to ensure that Charleston would support his anti-regulatory agenda. He once spent $3 million on campaign ads in a race for West Virginia state Supreme Court that tied the Democratic incumbent to child molesters and resulted in the first election of a Republican to the West Virginia Supreme Court since 1928.
Thanks in large part to the unfettered spending of Blankenship – much of it in the form of “dark money” donations that would have remained out of the public eye if not for Massey’s bankruptcy filings – the once-moribund West Virginia Republican Party took control of the State Legislature in 2014 for the first time since before the New Deal. By pouring literally tens of millions of dollars into local elections, Blankenship has been instrumental in convincing West Virginia’s poor white voters that government is the source of their problems. The new legislature is now seeking to enact a so-called Right to Work law that would finish off the State’s Unions once and for all, consolidate even more power with the coal bosses, and leave environmental and safety regulations in their current woeful state.
The United States District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia is currently building a case against Blankenship, which is slated to begin tomorrow. The government’s case hinges on an unending list of safety violations that could have saved dozens of lives as well as internal memos in which Blankenship and other Massey executives discuss ways to avoid regulations and extract as much as possible from their workforce. Ironically, the best shot for a conviction seems to be for lying in front of the Securities and Exchange Committee. Massey told the SEC “We do not condone any violations of MSHA regulations” despite repeatedly condoning such violations. If convicted he will face up to 30 years in prison. The political climate of the lunatic fringe right that he fostered will continue in West Virginia, however, as will the shameless destruction of workers’ rights, exploitation of workers, environmental destruction, and horrible safety violations. The next time a mine blows up or toxic sludge is released into a river in West Virginia, keep in mind who’s responsible: corporate despots like Blankenship and the state politicians who they buy off to promote their agenda and turn a blind eye to the horrors of their gulags.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.