This is the fifth post of photographer Antrim Caskey’s Mountaintop Mining Watch series from West Virginia on mountaintop removal by coal companies.
Don Blankenship was, until this week, the CEO and chairman of Massey Energy, the largest coal company in Appalachia. Massey is notorious for mountaintop removal, for union busting, for dumping poisonous coal slurry. And on April 5 this year, their Upper Big Branch coal mine exploded because of a dangerous build-up of methane gas. Twenty-nine miners died in the worst American mining disaster since 1970. As Antrim told me, “this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Blankenship — a big straw.”
I, for, one, had some preconceived ideas and stereotypes about what a man like this might be. But, though he lives in luxury and travels by helicopter, he’s not a distant, absentee overlord in New York or Los Angeles, isolated from the realities of his workers’ lives and willfully ignorant of the environmental consequences, not at all. He’s actually a local boy who grew up in a trailer and went to college and then worked his way up the corporation, one hard-earned step at a time. His house is on a beautifully intact mountain overlooking Mingo County where the water was polluted from his mining. In a disturbing and unsettling upending of the American Dream, Don Blankenship used his success not to improve the conditions of his community, but only to make a profit at their expense.
Antrim covered the Senate hearings in May during which Blankenship was “expressionless and emotionless, twitching, as if in a medicated fog. He’s been an elusive CEO.” He denied that the long litany of violations in his mines and his exhortations to extract more coal at any cost could have had anything to do with the catastrophic accident at the Upper Big Branch. In light of President Obama reading a letter by 25-year old Josh Napper who was killed in the explosion, in which Napper had a premonition of what would happen to him, Blankenship’s response has been seen as utterly callous.
Ironically, the Senate hearing brought Blankenship face to face and side by side with his nemesis, Cecil Roberts, President of the United Mine Workers (UMW) union. Antrim continued, “Blankenship broke the union in ’85 — they hate each other. Roberts is trying to control his rage, because the union’s just about dead, ineffectual and powerless.” Roberts testified, “a man shouldn’t have to go to work with his lunch pail, wondering whether or not he’s going to see his family that night.”
But public opinion finally caught up. Rolling Stone ran a long profile of Blankenship, calling him a “Dark Lord,” in which Blankenship is quoted as saying about himself, “I don’t care what people think. At the end of the day, Don Blankenship is going to die with more money than he needs.”
Antrim concluded, “He is retiring from Massey because he became a liability — that’s very obvious to his board and stockholders — the stock went up as soon as the announcement was made. Baxter Philips, #2 or 3 in line, replaces him. So nothing will really change quickly, but no one will run Massey like Blankenship did, draconian and absolutist in management style. It’s the end of an era, the coal industry winding down. He became a reviled public figure. This is a huge symbolic victory.”
Please see the other posts in the Mountaintop Mining Watch series.