“The Dark Lord of Coal Country” to Retire; the Damage He Did Will Endure Forever
Late last week came word that Don Blankenship CEO of Massey Energy, the largest coal producer in central Appalachia – will retire at the end of this year. You may recall that Massey owns the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia, where 29 miners were killed back in April, the worst coal mining accident in the United States since 1970. The Upper Big Branch disaster was far from an isolated incident. In fact, Massey has a long history of environmental and worker safety violations going back many years. In the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch disaster, one of Massey Energy’s largest shareholders called on Blankenship to resign immediately, citing the company’s “cavalier attitude toward risk and callous disregard for the safety of its employees has exacted a horrible cost on dozens of hard-working miners and their loved ones.”
That would all be bad enough, but unfortunately there’s much, much more. In this video, for instance, listen as Blankenship declares, “I don’t believe climate change is real.” Then there’s the current Rolling Stone magazine’s brutal expose on Blankenship, which calls Blankenship “The Dark Lord of Coal Country” for having “destroyed the region’s mountains, polluted its waters and overseen the worst mining disaster in 40 years.” According to Rolling Stone, Blankenship “is a rich hillbilly who believes that 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.”
The fact is, Don Blankenship is good at what he does, and he is well compensated for his efforts, pulling down $17.8 million in 2009. Another thing Blankenship’s good at “pulling down” is mountains, lots and lots of mountains. In fact, Rolling Stone reports, “Blankenship helped popularize the style of mining known as mountaintop removal, in which the mountains are removed from the coal, rather than the coal from the mountains — a practice that has destroyed 2,000 miles of streams and damaged more than a million acres of forest.” He also “has injected toxic coal slurry near underground aquifers, a practice that has allegedly sickened hundreds of residents.” The bottom line? “All in all, Blankenship has probably caused more suffering than any other human being in Appalachia,” according to United Mine Workers of America president, Cecil Roberts, “who has battled Blankenship for nearly 30 years.”
Perhaps just as damaging as what Blankenship has done to Appalachia’s mountains and environment directly, is the large-scale support he’s provided to anti-environmental and anti-clean-energy politicians and policies. Rolling Stone reports:
A right-wing Republican in a traditionally Democratic state, Blankenship has also used his wealth and influence to go after anyone who opposes him. “Unlike the old coal barons, who mostly shunned the limelight, Blankenship is a very flamboyant character,” says Robert Rupp, professor of political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College. When it comes to politics, Blankenship doesn’t waste time twisting arms: Massey spent less than $20,000 on federal lobbying last year and has contributed only $300,000 to federal candidates since 1990. Instead, he goes for a more direct bang for his buck. He spent more than $3 million electing a state Supreme Court judge who would provide a favorable verdict in a lawsuit, funneled nearly $1 million into advertising this year to improve coal’s image, and served on the boards of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Mining Association, which has attacked the Obama administration for waging a “regulatory jihad” against coal.
Blankenship’s views on energy conservation, global warming, and clean energy would be laughable if he weren’t such a major force in American politics. For instance, Blankenship has stated that energy conservation and things like mass transit are akin to “socialism and the elimination of capitalism and free enterprise.” Blankenship has stated that the “true enemies are the environmental ‘greeniacs’ who recognize that burning coal has dangerously overheated the planet.”
Of course, it’s not just Don Blankenship that’s the problem here, it’s a lot broader than that. Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate J.W. Randolph explains it this way:
…Singularly, as bad as his leadership was, Don Blankenship was never the problem. He was the product of an entire coal culture that puts executive profits and cost cutting ahead of worker safety, economic diversification, human health, Appalachian culture, ecologic integrity, and America’s energy future. We’re not sad to see Don Blankenship go, but his example of corruption and community endangerment should be a clear example of why the Appalachian people need the help of Congress and the President to end practices like mountaintop removal immediately.
In the end, Rolling Stone concludes, the story of Massey Energy under the leadership of Don Blankenship is “is a deeply tragic one.” That’s because Blankenship could have, theoretically at least, been a force for good, helping “West Virginia turn toward the future and imagine itself as something more than a landscape to be raped and pillaged by greedy industrialists.” Instead, Massey Energy, under Blankenship’s leadership, spent years blowing up mountains, poisoning people’s drinking water, operating dangerous mines that ended up causing people to die. That is Blankenship’s responsibility and legacy – ruined lives, ruined communities, a ruined environment. As I said in the headline of this article, Don Blankenship may be retiring from Massey Energy at the end of this year, but the damage he did will endure forever.