By David Montgomery and Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 8, 2010; C01
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.
He met with families of the miners all afternoon Wednesday, except for a short period when he met with federal mine safety officials and then briefed the governor. He intended to continue meeting with the families into the evening, the company said in a statement. The company's chief operating officer, Chris Adkins, has been directing rescue efforts.
Since Blankenship signed on as an executive with a Massey subsidiary in 1982, and worked his way up to the top job by 2000, he has cut a colorful and controversial figure in coal country. Richmond-based Massey is the nation's fourth-largest coal company, but in Central Appalachia, Massey is king, and Blankenship is Massey.
"There are those who idolize him and deify him, and there are those who vilify him, and I think he expects that and sees it as being part of his job," said Douglas McKinney, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party. "I think he honestly cares about West Virginia, and I think he honestly cares about Massey Energy's employees. . . . This is just a real tragedy."
Blankenship calls himself an Appalachian guy, who went into his first coal mine more than four decades ago, who has known the hardship and humiliation of not being able to pay the bills or find a job. During his youth near Matewan, W.Va., along the Kentucky border, he trapped muskrats for 50 cents apiece.
Now a dark-eyed, generously jowled CEO whose 2008 total compensation exceeded $11 million, Blankenship related such childhood anecdotes during a September rally opposing the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009. Wearing a star-spangled ball cap and a polo shirt patterned after the American flag, he also chided the federal government for using "our own taxes to destroy our own jobs."
"As someone who has overseen the mining of more coal than anyone else in the history of Central Appalachia, I know that the safety and health of coal miners is my most important job," he said that day from the dais on a reclaimed mountaintop removal site in Holden, W.Va. "But I also know that Washington and state politicians have no idea how to improve miners' safety. The very idea that they care more about coal-miner safety than we do is as silly as global warming."
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Blankenship was raised by a single mother in the little town of Delorme, in southwestern West Virginia, close to the Kentucky border. The town is not far from Matewan, in Mingo County, which figured in the labor strife of the 1920s when miners struggled to unionize.
But Blankenship's was not a union household. His mother, Nancy, worked seven days a week in a grocery. He received a degree in accounting from Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va. Before he graduated, he took time off to make money working in a coal mine -- in a union job. After graduation, he took accounting jobs in various food companies before becoming a manager at a Massey subsidiary.
Blankenship was Massey's point man in 1984 when the United Mine Workers went on strike. The miners said Massey was trying to break the union by not joining most other major coal producers in signing a labor agreement. Massey wanted separate contracts for each of its many subsidiaries. That's when Blankenship said 11 bullets were shot into his office. Union workers said they were shot at, too.
Blankenship told The Washington Post at the time: "I'm ready to be killed. . . . The [union] is trying to take away our freedom. We don't have any love for the union."
That was the year Cecil E. Roberts, the current international president of the United Mine Workers of America, met Blankenship. "He did something we hadn't seen in the coal fields since the 1920s," Roberts said. "He brought in replacement workers, armed security."
Roberts estimates that 30 to 40 percent of Massey's miners were union members before Blankenship arrived. Now it's 4 or 5 percent. "No one since the mid-1980s could have been a worse enemy to labor than Don Blankenship," Roberts said. The Upper Big Branch mine where the explosion occurred is nonunion.
Blankenship has also thrown his weight around West Virginia politics, shelling out more than $3 million of his own money for ads to help defeat a West Virginia state Supreme Court justice in 2004. That judge would have been in a position to rule against Massey in an appeal of a $50 million award for a small coal company owner, who convinced a jury that Massey had driven his company into bankruptcy. The new judge cast the deciding vote against the $50 million award. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the new judge should have recused himself.
Blankenship was also a top fundraiser backing GOP candidates for the state legislature before the 2006 elections, McKinney said. In the fall, Blankenship also gave $30,400 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Blankenship delivers his sometimes tough words in the calm, quiet drawl of a man who sounds comforted by certainty. In a January debate with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. at the University of Charleston, Blankenship was articulate, dispassionate, never smiling, rarely gesturing, as terse as Kennedy was passionately long-winded.
While Kennedy claimed West Virginians are being impoverished and poisoned by the coal industry, Blankenship repeatedly linked coal mining to prosperity, homeland security and freedom. He marveled at how Americans could squabble over traces of pollution when "billions" of people around the world are dying because they lack electricity.
"The thing about this industry is, it improves every year, only for the hurdle to be made higher," he told the audience while addressing environmental and safety issues. "West Virginians are the ones that work in it. Coaches and teachers and Sunday school teachers are the ones that work in it. We're doing everything we can to comply with a different law every day. . . . This industry is what made this country great. And if we forget that, we're going to have learn to speak Chinese."
Coal mining, Blankenship said toward the end of the debate, is "one of the safest industries in the country."
Staff writers Kimberly Kindy and Steven Mufson and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.