Illustration by Sydney Ling
I'm a fan of profiles, and reading "The People vs. the Coal Baron," which details Don Blankenship's complex personality, is yet another reason why. The New York Times story by David Segal is a fascinating portrait of Blankenship's rise from an impoverished childhood to success as an accounting major in college, then his climb from an office-manager position to CEO of Massey.
His leadership role was marked by an autocratic, uncaring style, said many former employees; even safety programs were tied to saving money. Yet Segal found others who saw a competent manager who kept thousands employed when many mines were shutting down.
Blankenshhighlight has been in the news again since last fall, when he pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from a blast in 2010 that killed 29 miners. His trial, which had been delayed, is now set to begin Oct. 1.
Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette, who covers the coal industry, reports that Blankenship faces three felony counts that allege he conspired to violate mine safety standards, worked to thwart U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors and lied to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and to the investing public about Massey’s safety practices. Blankenship is the first head of a coal company to face charges that could send him to prison for more than 30 years.
Five years ago, Workshop reporter Giovanni Russonello wrote about Massey, the largest coal company in central Appalachia at that time, and found that despite its claim that its safety record was “average,” no U.S. coal company had a worse fatality record than Massey Energy Co., even before the explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5, 2010. Still, Blankenship often declared that safety was his chief concern.
“From the day I became a member of Massey’s leadership team 20 years ago, I have made safety my No. 1 priority,” he told a Senate subcommittee in May 2010.
Russonello reported that no company other than Massey was responsible for more miner deaths from 2000 to 2009, even though Massey was only the sixth-largest coal producer in the United States in '09, according to government statistics. Both Massey and CONSOL Energy Inc. had 23 fatalities during those 10 years.
But, as we wrote at the time, CONSOL produced more coal, giving Massey a much poorer ratio of deaths-to-production. Including those 2010 fatalities, 54 workers had been killed at Massey mines since 2000, dozens more than those of any other company. The total includes the 23 before the accident, 29 from the explosion and two since.
Massey also amassed thousands more safety violations than any other coal company between 2000 and 2009.