Profile: Don L. Blankenship, the self-assured chief executive of Massey Energy

By David Montgomery and Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 8, 2010

Don L. Blankenship, the blunt, self-assured chief executive of Massey Energy -- parent company of the West Virginia coal mine where at least 25 miners died this week -- doesn't back down from a fight.

When anonymous assailants fired potshots into his office during a bitter labor dispute in the mid-1980s, he pronounced himself "ready to be killed" in the struggle, and he kept his bullet-shattered television set on display as a kind of trophy.

When he grew frustrated with Democratic-dominated politics in West Virginia in the past decade, and decided an incumbent state Supreme Court judge was not to his liking, either, he designed media campaigns and wrote millions of dollars' worth of checks to defeat the judge and try to elect Republicans to the state legislature.

When environmentalists made him a symbol of damage caused by greenhouse gases and the destruction of mountaintops to reach buried coal, he delighted in rhetorically giving as good as he got. In January he went toe-to-toe on a university stage with environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in a 90-minute debate now posted on YouTube. Blankenship's Twitter feed is basically a string of zingers aimed at environmentalists, Democrats and green-thinking Republicans.

"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 than wind."

But now, at 60, Blankenship, a millionaire who grew up poor in coal country, is facing perhaps the greatest challenge of his career. As he directs his company's response to the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine, his pugnacious profile seems to have softened a bit. His Twitter account has gone dormant -- he has not tweeted since before the disaster.

But he's still not backing down. As regulators scrutinize Massey's record of repeated alleged safety violations, including ones tied to ventilation at Upper Big Branch, where an explosion of methane gas has been blamed for the catastrophe, Blankenship defends the company while also reaching out to the grieving families.

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"Our creativity on safety is second to none," he said to CNN in a low drawl on Tuesday. "We would take great exception to the fact that some would claim Massey's mines aren't generally safer than competitor coal mines."

On ABC, he said that whatever went wrong would be examined and corrected, and that life is inherently full of risks. "The danger of anything is there, whether it's construction work or whether it's driving trucks or whatever," he said. "There's 42,000 people a year killed on the highways. So there's dangers in everything and we're trying to minimize that danger as best we can."

He declined through a company representative to be interviewed Wednesday by The Post.

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