If not for Don Blankenship, the colorful and controversial chairman of Massey Energy now under scrutiny for his running of West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine, the story of the 1920 Matewan Massacre might not have been told in the place where it happened, Mayor Sheila Kessler told AOL News.
"The man that I know answers calls to people that are in need. He gives donations to about everyone who ever asks for it. He loves children," said Kessler, who "can't remember ever not knowing him, and I'm 50."
Until Monday's methane gas explosion, which killed 25 miners and left the fate of four others in doubt, the Hatfields and the McCoys may have been the most famous residents living near the Tug Fork River on the Kentucky border. Now Blankenship, who lives in a mountaintop mansion nearby, can lay claim to his own somewhat dubious place in history.
"A lot of the state's best and brightest went elsewhere, but Don didn't do that," said Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represented two widows of miners who died in a 2006 fire in the Aracoma mine that Massey owns. "That's the reason he angers a lot of West Virginians, because they're used to pointing the blame on out-of-state people. But he's a local boy who evokes strong emotions in people on one side or the other."
Blankenship and his company, the fourth largest coal producer in America, were accused of putting profits ahead of safety long before Monday's incident.
"Coal can be mined in an environmentally responsible way," United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said in the organization's magazine last year. "But in many respects, Massey has chosen not to do it that way, and the result has been to give the coal industry a black eye."
The Upper Big Branch explosion "isn't just of matter of happenstance but rather the inevitable result of a profit-driven system and reckless corporate conduct," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, a former coal miner, in a stinging statement this week. He went on to quote from a memo Blankenship wrote to his managers reminding them to put coal production first, because '"this memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills."
Blankenship, 60, has been chairman of Massey since 2000, when the company spun off from its parent, Fluor Corp. But he "made his name" within the company in 1984, Stanley said, when he went head-to-head with the UMWA in a labor dispute. "He broke the mine workers union in southern West Virginia," said Stanley, who often squares off against Massey and its subsidiaries in court.
As the United Mine Workers Journal recounted, when Massey bought the former Cannelton mine in Kanawha County, W.Va., in 2004, Blankenship fired more than 80 union miners. They filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, and during the ensuing hearings the CEO testified that unions were "bad for business." The administrative law judge disagreed and ordered Blankenship to negotiate with the union to rehire the workers. He refused, and his appeal is still pending. But in a separate age-discrimination case at the same mine, Massey agreed to settle with miners for $8.75 million.
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Blankenship routinely fights back with appeals when accused of labor, safety or environmental violations. In the aftermath of Monday's disaster, he kept his composure in interviews outside the devastated mine.
An AOL News call to interview Blankenship was not returned.
"Any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated or illegally operated or anything like that would be unfounded," he told West Virginia Metro News. "Violations are, unfortunately, a normal part of the mining process."
Perhaps, but the Upper Big Branch mine was cited by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration for 1,342 safety violations from 2005 until the explosion and assessed $1.89 million in proposed fines. Of those violations, Massey contested 422 that could have cost it $742,830 in penalties, according to federal officials interviewed by The Washington Post.
"[Blankenship] is an accountant by training and he's a numbers guy. He's a believer in cost-benefit analysis," Stanley said. "He's a very cool character in the sense that he's very calm in his personal nature. He's not an excitable guy. ... It's a rare occasion when you'll see a public display of anger and emotion from Don Blankenship."
That was true this week, when Blankenship told West Virginia Metro News, "People who are in anguish over the loss of a loved one are going to vent that anger toward someone, and I would suspect in some cases that's going to be me."
Many, especially on the left, have vented toward Blankenship. Rolling Stone included him in its list of the top polluting "Climate Killers" and called him "a villain ripped straight from the comic books: a jowly, mustache-sporting, union-busting coal baron who uses his fortune to bend politics to his will."
As a director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the outspoken coal exec has used that platform to lobby against climate-change legislation, dismissing global warming as a figment of the imagination of "greeniacs."
A glance at his Twitter page in the days before the explosion reveals a conservative who is unabashedly political in his tweets. A sampling:
- "New study in Geophysical Research Letters finds strong winds cause ice loss in Arctic. Those full of hot air like Gore should avoid the Arctic."
- "America doesn't need Green jobs -- but Red, White, & Blue ones."
- "If the White House wants to create US jobs, they can start by approving hundreds of mining permits. Coal employs more workers then wind."
West Virginia may have a Rockefeller, but when it comes to power players in West Virginia, few can compare to this big-time operator born in Stopover, Ky. One of four children raised by a single mother in central Appalachia, Blankenship graduated from Matewan High School before earning an accounting degree at Marshall University.
Today he drives a Bentley -- when he's not flying in a corporate jet or behind the wheel of an RV that he uses to haul his friends around. "He's told me he averages $15 million a year," Stanley said. "As he told me one time, 'Not bad for a boy from Mingo County.' "
Blankenship has used his money to push his political agenda. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, he gave more than $150,000 to legislative candidates in a failed attempt to throw Democrats out of power in Charleston.
He and others connected to Massey have given more than $300,000 to federal candidates since 1990, with 91 percent going to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Blankenship also has supported groups that oppose abortion rights.
"Don Blankenship would actually be less powerful if he were in elected office," Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia told Rolling Stone. "He would be twice as accountable and half as feared."
Blankenship sponsored a tea party-inspired Labor Day Friends of America rally featuring Fox News star Sean Hannity and country singer Hank Williams Jr. In a video, the CEO invited people to come and learn "how environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your job."
Beyond West Virginia, Blankenship's greatest impact may be on constitutional law. His actions in a judicial election prompted a legal battle that ended in the U.S. Supreme Court. It stemmed from more than $3 million in campaign donations he made to elect Brent Benjamin to the West Virginia State Supreme Court. After Benjamin won the 2004 election, he ruled in favor of Massey to throw out a $50 million jury verdict against the company.
As the case made its way through the courts, Blankenship was photographed on the French Riviera with the state's chief justice, Elliott "Spike" Maynard, who was at the time considering the same case. When an ABC News reporter confronted Blankenship about his vacation companion, the CEO grabbed the correspondent's camera and said, "If you're going to start taking pictures of me, you're liable to get shot."
Before the high court ruled, Blankenship told The New York Times that he'd "been around West Virginia long enough to know that politicians don't stay bought, particularly ones that are going to be in office for 12 years." He added that he "would never go out and spend money to try to gain favor with a politician. Eliminating a bad politician makes sense. Electing somebody hoping he's going to be in your favor doesn't make any sense at all."
The Supreme Court ruled last year that judges must disqualify themselves from cases that involve campaign contributors because of "a serious risk of actual bias."
Sheila Kessler, the mayor of Matewan, blames media bias for Blankenship's bad rep, noting he isn't the only coal mine operator with a union-free workforce. In fact, when massive flooding devastated the county last spring, Kessler found a bleary-eyed Blankenship outside City Hall one morning ready to offer assistance with equipment and manpower.
"He came through with his promise," she said. "He called his laid-off miners back to work and paid them to work for the county to rebuild roads and creek banks. ... He didn't just use people he already had."