UPDATE (Dec. 3, 2010): Rolling Stone has now put the entire “Dark Lord of Coal Country” article referenced in the Nov. 30 post below online. You can read it here.
A good headline can make you run, not walk, to read a story. But to read “The Dark Lord of Coal Country,” you’ll have to jog to a newstand or run to subscribe to the online edition of Rolling Stone to check out Jeff Goodell’s takedown of Massey Coal chief Don Blankenship, in the Nov. 25, 2010 (Issue 1118) of the magazine.
Fortunately, Charleston Gazette “Coal Tattoo” blogger Ken Ward has excerpted some significant passages from the article, which pulls no punches – and then gets even punchier. The article begins:
Don Blankenship grew up poor in the hollows of West Virginia. But as the richest and most powerful coal baron in Appalachia, he has destroyed the region’s mountains, polluted its waters, and overseen the worst mining disaster in 40 years.
Goodell describes the beating Massey and Blankenship took in the press after the Upper Big Branch Disaster earlier this year, which killed 29 miners and how Blankenship responded:
For the first time in his life, Blankenship suddenly found himself in the midst of a crisis that he could not buy his way out of. The media coverage of the disaster was relentless, and industry insiders wondered openly if he would have to step down as CEO of Massey. Even longtime champions of Big Coal began to use him as a punching bag. During a Senate hearing on the tragedy, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia — perhaps the single most valuable ally the coal industry had — took the extraordinary step of personally rebuking Blankenship for his recklessness and hypocrisy. “I cannot fathom how an American business could practice such disgraceful health and safety policies while simultaneously boasting about its commitment to the safety of its workers,” Byrd said. “The Upper Big Branch mine had an alarming — an alarming — record. Shame!”
Blankenship took the abuse from Byrd — and then got on with the business of being Don Blankenship. He recruited a team of heavyweight consultants from the Bush era, including lawyer Robert Luskin, who represented Karl Rove in the Valerie Plame spy case; a PR firm called Public Strategies, run by former Bush communications chief Dan Bartlett; and Dave Lauriski, the head of MSHA under Bush.
Blankenship could still orchestrate a smooth exist for himself, perhaps by selling Massey to a rival company. But however his career comes to an end, his story is a deeply tragic one. Given his local roots and his business acumen, he might have helped West Virginia turn toward the future and imagine itself as something more than a landscape to be raped and pillaged by greedy industrialists. Instead, he has become just another coal baron, a symbol of all the worst impulses of American capitalism.