Meet Don Blankenship, the 60-year-old chief executive of Massey Energy, whose Upper Big Branch mine was at the center of the West Virginia coal mining disaster that killed 29 people in April.
As Blankenship heads to Capitol Hill today to testify before the Senate, here are five things you need to know about West Virginia’s 21st-century coal baron:
1. Washington, D.C.
Blankenship is a top GOP contributor, donating more than $30,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee last year. He also spent $3 million of his own cash in campaign ads for a West Virginia judge who later helped overturn a $50 million judgment against Massey. This incident is rumored to have formed the basis of John Grisham’s 2008 legal thriller “The Appeal.”
Blankenship has been known to have an anti-union, anti-regulatory stance. In 1984, when the United Mine Workers went on strike at Massey, Blankenship refused to sign a labor agreement with the other major coal producers, demanding that they generate separate contracts for each company. In response, 11 bullets were shot into his office. Blankenship told The Washington Post at the time: “I’m ready to be killed … the [union] is trying to take away our freedom. We don’t have any love for the union.”
Cecil E. Roberts, current international president of the United Mine Workers of America, estimates that, before Blankenship, 30 to 40 percent of Massey’s miners were unionized. Now estimates are at 4 or 5 percent. Upper Big Branch is a non-union mine.
Blankenship also strongly opposes government regulation of the coal industry. In an anti-union Labor Day rally last year, Blankenship said that “Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miner safety. The very idea that they care more about coal miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming.” Watch here:
Blankenship has been very vocal about not believing in global warming. He claims that it’s a “Ponzi scheme.” Some of Blankenship’s tweets include: “Rahall says those that deny global warming are like those that deny Santa Claus. I agree – we’re called “realists” and “America doesn’t need Green jobs – but Red, White, & Blue ones.”
This past January, Blankenship and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist, went head-to-head in a debate on coal and the environment at the University of Charleston. Kennedy accused Blankenship, head of the largest company doing mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia, of damaging Appalachia’s environment and the livelihood of its people. Blankenship responded, “You talk about it being a sin to do surface mining. The real sin is that the enviros want to focus us on one part per billion of iron or talk about windmills when tens of millions of people are starving to death.”
4. Safety regulations
Blankenship’s Upper Big Branch mine received 124 safety violations this year alone.
In October 2000, one of Massey’s mines spilled over 300 million gallons of black, toxic sludge into the headwaters of Coldwater Creek and Wolf Creek, in Martin County, Miss. The spill volume of the sludge was more than 20 times that of the Exxon Valdez’s crude oil spill in Alaska.
Davitt McAteer, former head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and chief investigator of the earlier Massey accidents, said that April’s explosion “should not have happened. It was preventable.”
And still Blankenship denies that his company’s mining practices are at fault.
Blankenship is known to require production updates for each of Massey’s mining operations as often as every two hours. This micromanaging has helped Massey grow to control about 36 percent of the proven coal reserves in Central Appalachia.
Massey miners are often referred to as members. Some Massey miners fly a white flag with a large “M” at their homes.