There are tens of thousands of documents that could tell the storied history of rags-to-riches, up-from-the-hollow U.S. Senate candidate and lifelong coal baron Don Blankenship. During Mr. Blankenship’s 67 years, he has negotiated union contracts; piled up safety violations; been issued verdicts, appealed convictions; executed deeds on land from Mingo County, West Virginia to Las Vegas; filed criminal pleadings; made speeches; delivered testimony; and now, generated campaign ads. But you really only need to look at one sheet of paper with a long list of names. Here we’ll highlight a federal agency document that sheds light on Blankenship's corporate rise and fall.
Who is Don Blankenship and why is he in the news?
Blankenship, who will vie against two other GOP hopefuls on West Virginia’s primary ballot Tuesday, is a well-financed candidate. He grew prosperous in the most dangerous and bloody industry in America.
Mining coal from underground shafts in West Virginia and Kentucky provided work and a path out of poverty for generations of families living along the narrow Tug River border between the two states. As a college student, Blankenship worked the mines during school breaks, but did not spend his career holding a pickaxe or needing a helmet lamp. By his 30s, young Don had found his way above ground and into management at a subsidiary of A.T. Massey Coal Company, the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia.
Keeping with a local history of bloody labor conflicts, Blankenship led a contentious, violent, and drawn-out battle against the United Mine Workers of America. In late 1984, Blankenship’s subsidiary was singled out by the union with a strike aimed at keeping all miners and truck drivers at Massey mines covered by one central benefits contract. Blankenship fought hard to defeat the strikers, and the violent work stoppage featured rock throwing, sniper gunshots, slashed tires, union hall explosions, and at least one accidental death. The walkout lasted until the end of 1985 before the union caved, its strike fund depleted, and called off the pickets. Blankenship rose to become Massey’s president and CEO and for 20 years kept his eye on the bottom line—even if it put safety on the sidelines.
After a tragic, albeit predictable and preventable, mine collapse in April 2010 at the Massey Upper Big Branch Mine where over two dozen workers died, Blankenship was forced to retire and Massey Energy was sold and renamed. The disaster didn’t come out of nowhere: Upper Big Branch had amassed more than 1,100 safety violations from the Labor Department Mine Safety and Health Administration in the previous three years, including methane buildup and poor escape routes. The MSHA investigation of the explosion concluded that Upper Big Branch and Massey "kept two sets of books” to hide hazards from miners and regulators; “intimidated miners to prevent... evidence of safety and health violations and hazards” from being reported; “failed to provide adequate training for workers;" and "established a regular practice...to hide violations and hazards from enforcement personnel."
For Blankenship, the scandal was a setback in a year otherwise especially lucky in money and love. Financially, Blankenship’s salary, severance, and stock sale netted him over $100 million, and he met businesswoman Meiling Hobbs, who would become his fiancée and business partner.
Even when the former CEO was indicted by a West Virginia grand jury on four felony counts related to the Upper Big Branch explosion, his well-paid attorneys managed to defend him against the most serious charges, leaving Blankenship relatively unscathed except for a regulatory misdemeanor of conspiring to violate mine safety standards. Exactly six years after the explosion that killed 29 men, federal District Judge Irene Berger, herself a coal miner’s daughter, sentenced the unrepentant coal baron to pay a fine of $250,000 and the maximum time in prison for a regulatory workplace safety violation: one year.
Blankenship has persistently insisted “I am not guilty of a crime,” appealing his misdemeanor conviction to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals—which affirmed the lower court verdict—and the Supreme Court—which declined to consider—and has recently, so far unsuccessfully, petitioned Judge Berger’s court to vacate his conviction.
Blankenship completed his jail time in Taft, California, far from the coal dust of West Virginia, and now lives on probation in a $2.4 million Las Vegas mansion he and Ms. Hobbs bought for cash before he entered prison. He still owns a house in Mingo County, but whether or not he wins the Senate primary, it’s unclear if he will move back to his home state, where his transgressions are not forgotten.
Meanwhile, in the local tradition of the Hatfields and McCoys, related families from Kentucky and West Virginia who feuded on opposite sides of the Tug River for over a century, Blankenship has recently engaged in a bloody battle of words with Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. McConnell would potentially be his Senate colleague. The bellicose Blankenship has taken to calling his neighboring lawmaker from the same political party “Cocaine Mitch.”
Of all the public documents that tell pieces of Blankenship's story and his steady rise from oblivion to energy tycoon with a questionable past, this one, an appendix to a Mine Safety and Health Administration report listing the names and job titles of those 29 men who lost their lives in the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine collapse, tells it best. Three of the dead men were from a single family. The two youngest victims, Cory T. Davis and Joshua S. Napper, were first cousins and Charles T. Davis was their uncle.