CHARLESTON, W.Va.—Don Blankenship ascended from a modest, single-mother upbringing in Appalachia to personally make almost $20 million off coal in one year. He battled unions, spent millions as lead puppeteer behind Republican state politics, and fought regulators over safety and environmental rules, which his mines often broke.
The headstrong former CEO of Massey Energy has never shied from a fight, but his toughest one yet begins Thursday when he goes on trial in the worst U.S. mine disaster in 45 years.
Blankenship, 65, faces up to three decades in prison if convicted over how he ran the Upper Big Branch Mine, which exploded in 2010, killing 29 miners.
Blankenship is charged with conspiring to break mine health and safety requirements in hundreds of violations at Upper Big Branch. When federal inspectors would arrive at the mine’s entrance, a worker at a guardhouse would radio the office, which would alert underground miners so they could cover up violations, the indictment said. Because of how big the mine was, workers at the farthest reaches could have a two-hour warning.
Blankenship is also charged with lying to stockholders and federal financial regulators about Massey’s safety practices.
Prosecutors have produced memos, testimony, and other evidence they said show Blankenship prioritized profits over safety measures that could have saved lives. Prosecutors also may pick from the 1,800 to 1,900 recordings from audio recorders Blankenship secretly installed at his Massey office.
Slapping a coal executive with the kind of charges Blankenship faces is rare.
“I’m not sure anyone can tell you that there’s been a specific case where anyone had gone to the scope or the scale of what Blankenship’s accused of,” said Paul Rakes, a West Virginia University Institute of Technology history professor who researches coal.
In 1906, mine operators faced manslaughter indictments after a Fayette County, West Virginia, mine exploded and killed 23 people, but the case was tossed.
This February, Dickson Lee, former CEO of China-based coal company L&L Energy, received a five-year prison sentence in the United States over securities fraud. The charges weren’t related to safety.
Blankenship grew up beside railroad tracks in a tiny town in the Tug Fork River Valley along the Kentucky-West Virginia border. He has said his family was poor, but didn’t know it—their outhouse was nicer than most neighbors’, and they always had shoes.
He was raised by his mother, who owned a gas station and grocery store. He worked as an accountant for two baking companies and then joined Massey’s Rawl Sales & Processing Co. in 1982.
Blankenship climbed Massey’s ranks and expanded the company to an operation with $2.3 billion in revenue in 2009, with Upper Big Branch accounting for $331 million. He made $19.7 million in 2008, but still micromanaged decisions about spending, according to his indictment. Examples include personally reviewing a $750 contract to check freeze-proof systems at Upper Big Branch as well as a raise for a few truck drivers from $11.59 to $13.50 an hour, the indictment said.
Blankenship fought with the United Mine Workers of America and kept Massey anti-union. In 1984, up to 2,500 union members were on strike. There were mass demonstrations and numerous violent confrontations. During one, a bullet was apparently fired by a striking union member. Blankenship held onto a television set that was hit by the bullet in his Kentucky office.
After Blankenship’s indictment in November 2014, mine union President Cecil Roberts said the “carnage” at Massey mines was “a recurring nightmare,” adding “working for Massey meant putting your life and your limbs at risk.”
Blankenship’s attorneys tout safety initiatives at Massey when he was CEO, adding that the indictment includes no allegation that Blankenship was personally involved in any of the violations cited.
With mixed success, Blankenship poured millions of dollars into campaigns to shape a conservative political landscape that suited him. His blog lists his adversaries: the union, much of the media, “greeniacs,” and much of corporate America.
In what later became the basis for a John Grisham novel, Blankenship spent $3.5 million through an outside group to help current Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin defeat then-Justice Warren McGraw in 2004. McGraw was considered likely to vote to uphold a huge verdict against Massey. Instead, Benjamin was elected and cast a decisive vote to overturn the decision, saving Massey $50 million.
In 2006, he spent $6 million in an attempt to flip the state Legislature from Democrat to Republican. Leading up to the 2006 election, he spent $650,000 to defeat a bond issue prioritized by then-Gov. Joe Manchin, a fierce Blankenship foe and the state’s leading Democrat.
After the April 2010 mine blast, four investigations found that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers then allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno.
In the years between the explosion and his indictment, Blankenship denied responsibility. He believes natural gas in the mine, and not methane gas and excess coal dust, was at the root of the explosion.
Near the four-year anniversary of the disaster, Blankenship produced a video that deflected blame again before showing a slideshow of the deceased miners set to somber music.
It further infuriated now-Sen. Manchin, who appeared in the documentary, but said he didn’t know who was behind it. Blankenship’s court filings said Manchin and vindictive Democrats were out to get him with the indictment.
Pam Napper, whose son Josh died at Upper Big Branch, said she never believed she would see Blankenship face charges because of his money and influence.
“I think he needs to have some jail time, and sit and suffer without his family, like I sit and suffer without mine every day, knowing I will never see them again until that mighty day comes,” she said.