A while back, I wrote a piece for a magazine called Old Trout, in an issue devoted to the “Thirteen Scariest Americans.” It was edited down to about 200 words there; here’s the full original piece.
Don Blankenship Is an Evil Bastard
There is no greater threat to the future habitability of the earth than coal. And there is no human being more singularly focused on getting coal out of the ground, no matter the human or environmental cost, than Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Co.
Massey is the biggest and most aggressive practitioner of mountaintop-removal mining, which is just what it sounds like. More than 3 million pounds of explosive are detonated under the southern Appalachians every day, blowing off several ridgetops a week. The Appalachians are some of the world’s oldest mountains, and home to what may be the greatest biodiversity of any temperate region in the world.
The coal is stripped from underneath with gigantic steam shovels that tower 20 stories tall and can lift 100 tons of dirt with each scoop. Everything that isn’t coal (“overburden”) is dumped into the hollows and valleys below. More than 460 mountains and well over 1,000 miles of stream have been lost this way. And those figures, which are probably low given the age of the available data, are likely to double in the next decade, according to the EPA.
Some blast sites are “recovered,” hastily covered over with a layer of fast-growing grass, but the destruction is so deep that no forest will ever take root again.
Gigantic trucks carry the coal away to be washed with corrosive chemicals in nearby plants, a process that leaves behind toxic, tarry black sludge called slurry. In West Virginia alone, there are over 100 billion gallons of slurry stored in open ponds or abandoned underground mines, often less than a mile from houses and schools. The slurry seeps into groundwater and occasionally breaks from behind earthen dams to flood the towns below.
Southern Appalachians are regularly showered with coal dust, flooded with runoff, and forced to endure black, brackish public water unfit for consumption or bathing. Illness of every kind is ubiquitous.
Massey’s safety record at its underground mines is appalling, but few miners are killed in mountaintop-removal operations, for the simple reason that very few are employed. The work is largely done by machines. This helps explain the decline in mining jobs in a region where mining is frequently the only industry at all. It explains why West Virginia has the nation’s third-lowest per-capita income and second lowest average wages. Why 37% of residents of McDowell County, the state’s biggest coal producer, live in poverty.
In the areas where mountaintop removal is concentrated, the destruction — to land, to water and air quality, to property values — is so extensive it all but precludes the development of other industry. Coal has locked rural West Virginia into a death spiral.
Appalachian culture is one of America’s oldest, with families that date back seven or eight generations on the same land. They are being systematically purged from the landscape, their native culture irrevocably lost.
At the center of this, one of the most spectacular acts of geographic and cultural self-immolation ever undertaken by a free country, is Massey CEO Don Blankenship, the highest paid executive in the coal industry. He’s a West Virginia native, from Mingo County, the son of a poor single mother. From unremarkable roots he’s ascended the corporate ladder at Massey, made its powerful board his courtesans, ruthlessly suppressed mineworker unions (just 3% of Massey employees remain unionized), threatened and bullied critics, and single-handedly purchased at least one state-wide election — the 2004 race of state Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, who had the gall to rule against Massey. During the campaign, McGraw was accused of allowing child rapists to go free and defeated after 12 years of service by a virtually unknown challenger.
The bigger polluters, the multinationals, pour money and effort into polishing their public images and disguising their agendas. Not so a local thug like Blankenship. In 2005, when WV governor Joe Manchin threatened to keep a closer eye on Massey operations, Blankenship sued him in retaliation, represented by Robert Luskin, Karl Rove’s lawyer.
Today, Blankenship wields political clout via his grotesquely titled 527 PAC, “…And for the Sake of the Kids,” into which he’s poured millions of dollars of his own money. (When he founded the PAC he promised to start a foundation for the actual kids, but years later that hasn’t happened.) He’s going after the only other liberal Supreme Court judge in WV, and has vowed to shift the balance of power in the state legislature to Republicans. His interest is in maintaining WV’s low taxes, paltry social services, and lax regulatory enforcement. But the attack ads now airing in the state prominently feature abortion, gay marriage, and drunk drivers. Massey has learned something from recent Republican successes.
Every December, Massey funds a lavish Christmas Extravaganza in a small WV town. Blankenship arrives in a limo, dons a Santa hat, and moves among residents — his own people, whose ancestral land he is destroying, whose families he is impoverishing, whose children he is sickening — and passes out gifts.
The crowd applauds at the sight of a local boy made good.