Overlooking Williamson, West Virginia — the Mingo County seat and the town I called home for two years — there is a tall house built in the middle of a bald spot at the top of an otherwise forest-covered mountain. From almost anywhere in town you can look up and see that house, and the house surely affords a complete, nearly map-like view of the entire region. From our first days in Williamson, well before we knew who lived there, my kids took to calling that house “the castle.”
“The castle,” it turned out, belonged to Don Blankenship, a name that we would come to know well. You don’t live in central Appalachia without knowing it well. Until very recently, Blankenship was the CEO of the largest coal company of the region, Massey Energy, and one of the most powerful people in central Appalachian business and politics. Vanity Fair once called Blankenship “the Snidely Whiplash of coal, a larger-than-life figure so swaggering and creepy that his each next outrageous claim as chairman and C.E.O. of Massey Energy makes wonderful copy.”
One thing you have to understand is that coal is just about the only source of real jobs in Mingo County. If you don’t work in coal — or, if you’re lucky, in one of the tiny schools or hospitals of the area — you’re probably not making a living (and many, many people are not). There are several — though fewer all the time — coal companies in the area, but the titan among them was Massey. And Blankenship was the very prominent, very powerful face of Massey. Living up at the top of that hill, Blankenship was regarded among many local people as a sort of heavy-handed but benevolent Santa Claus, and by a few as a malevolent overlord. Like him or not, though, you knew he held the county in the palm of his hand.
Blankenship was responsible for crippling the United Mine Workers union in central Appalachia in the 1980s. More recently, he has been the most prominent and vocal defender of mountaintop removal mining (by which the coal is extracted from a mountain not by digging into it, but by blasting the top off of it). He was caught vacationing on the French Riviera with a WV Supreme Court justice who was in the midst of deciding a major suit against his company.
Finally, as Massey CEO, Blankenship presided over the most horrific mine disaster in living memory, the fourth anniversary of which fell this weekend. It happened on April 5, 2010, at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, WV, killing 29 miners.
I was living in Mingo County at the time, and I remember the day (it was the day after Easter) well. I remember the fear and the discouragement and the heartbreak that gripped the region that day and those that followed.
What we did not know in those first awful days that we know now is that the Upper Big Branch disaster was the result of a reckless approach to safety practices in the name of maximizing profits. This is the conclusion of a federal report on the matter, and Laurence Leamer’s fascinating book, The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption, makes clear that the impetus for that business culture came directly from Blankenship himself. Indeed, the same practices led to an earlier accident at Massey’s Aracoma mine in 2006, which killed two men (10 others barely escaped with their lives), and also to Massey’s pumping billions of gallons of toxic material into the water supplies of thousands of West Virginians over a period of many years.
As it tottered under the weight of multiple law suits brought on by all of this, Massey Energy was purchased by one of its competitors, Alpha Resources, in 2011, just before Blankenship took a multi-million-dollar retirement package and moved to Las Vegas (though I believe the house on the hill over Williamson still belongs to him).
Now I see that Blankenship has produced his own little documentary defending himself. There’s also an ABC News report on the still incomplete federal criminal investigation. (The video at the link there is worth a look.) Most striking is the comment from WV Senator Joe Manchin: “I believe that Don has blood on his hands. And I believe that justice will be done.”
This is interesting to the casual observer, I suppose, but if you’ve lived in coal country over the past two or three decades and known first hand the way Blankenship has dominated the economy, culture, and even the mythology of the place, it’s a stunning couple of sentences to read.