The Man Behind the Massey Disaster: Donald Blankenship's Storied Career of Misdeeds

Last Updated Apr 8, 2010 8:30 AM EDT

Hi -- I'm Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy (MEE). You may remember me from a video clip where I assault an ABC reporter, or my involvement in buying a West Virginia Supreme Court seat. Perhaps my paranoid rants about atheists and greeniacs, or maybe my company's responsibility for a coal slurry spill an estimated 20 times larger than the Exxon Valdez spill.
Not ringing a bell? Let's get to know Blankenship, head of a coal company with a long history of environmental and safety disasters. The latest, of course, is the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, where 25 miners were killed and four are still unaccounted for. In the days since the explosion, reports have revealed that citations issued against the mine more than doubled to over 500 from 2008, and the penalties proposed have tripled to $897,325. Blankenship's response? "There are violations at every coal mine in America, and UBB was a mine that had violations," he said in a NYT report.

We'd be here all day if every misdeed or zany comment by Blankenship, who also sits on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce board, was listed. So, instead here's a sampling of some Blankenship's less than stellar moments in his career at Massey Energy.

For the Sake of the Children: Blankenship was so concerned about the plight of children in West Virginia that he donated $1.7 million to a group called And For the Sake of the Kids. The group used the funds to finance a media campaign aimed at ousting Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw.

What's wrong with building a coal silo next to a school? Massey Energy's Goals Coal processing facility is less than 300 feet from Marsh Fork Elementary School in West Virginia, and not far from a from massive coal slurry impoundment. The company wants to build a second silo, but it's been blocked for years. After local school officials hinted that Massey should help fund a project to move the school, they received this answer from a spokesman: "Massey pays millions of dollars in taxes each year that are available for projects for as this. "

Blankenship recently had a change of heart and has said Massey will pay $1 million toward the $6.6 million relocation and new school.

Anyone know where I can buy a judge? Blankenship doesn't like to lose. He did once, back in 2002. A jury determined that Massey should pay $50 million to Harman Coal, a smaller mining company that had sued for fraud. Massey appealed and Blankenship took the necessary steps to make sure he didn't lose -- again. Blankenship plowed millions to unseat West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Warren McGraw and backed a likely ally Republican lawyer Brent Benjamin.

Blankenship succeeded, and Benjamin was elected to a 12-year term. When the case made to court, Benjamin didn't recuse himself and Blankenship won the ruling. But the U.S. Supreme Court took notice and in a 5-4 ruling, reversed the West Virginia justices. Author John Grisham used the case as the basis for his 2008 novel The Appeal. Worst environmental disaster east of the Mississippi: In October 2000, a Massey Energy subsidiary had the dubious distinction of being responsible for the largest man-made environmental disaster east of the Mississippi (until the 2008), when a coal slurry impoundment broke and spilled about 245 million gallons of toxic sludge in the headwaters of two creeks in Kentucky. The Mine Safety and Health Administration of the federal Office of Surface Mining said Massey ignored warnings signs of the breakthrough and didn't take the necessary steps to avoid a repeat of a smaller breakthrough in 1994.

West Virginia state agencies were disappointed with the $600,000 settlement it received to help pay for the cleanup. Massey agreed to pay $3.25 million in fines and damages to Kentucky state agencies. Massey paid $58.8 million to clean up the spill, although about $52.5 million of that was paid directly or reimbursed by insurance companies, the Charleston Gazette reported at the time.

As Think Progress noted, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao -- coincidentally, the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY -- levied a $5,600 fine for the spill. That same year, Massey gave $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, chaired by McConnell.

Profits over people: In January 2006, a fire at Massey's Aracoma mine killed two workers. Massey would later plead guilty and agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties for a number of safety violations that contributed to their deaths. Several months before the fire, Blankenship sent out this memo to his managers, which would later be included in the court filings. And even in a followup memo that "clarified" his message, he stresses the importance of coal production.
If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e. build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal. This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills.
Statistically insignificant: A month after the Aracoma fire killed the two workers, Blankenship said before making a keynote speech at a Republican club event, the safety measures exceeded state and federal regulation and that the responsibility rested on the mine's workers. He would later describe the explosion as "rare and statistically insignificant."
  • Kirsten Korosec

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