The People v. a Coal Baron

438 views Leave a comment
A hint circuit during Upper Big Branch cave in Montcoal, W.Va., where 29 organisation died in a 2010 explosion.

Jeff Gentner/Associated Press

Don Blankenship always knew accurately what he wanted during a years he ran Massey Energy, once a sixth-largest hint association in a United States. He had specific and fatiguing ideas about how to work mines, how to provide employees and how to bargain with regulators. When he expelled instructions, he wanted them followed to a letter, and this wasn’t usually loyal about his business.

It was also loyal about his breakfast.

His former maid, Deborah May, detected this when she was dispatched one morning to McDonald’s to collect adult an egg-and-cheese biscuit for her boss. What she returned with had bacon in it, and that was a problem. Mr. Blankenship flung a bacon, Ms. May removed in a deposition, partial of a lawsuit over stagnation benefits.

“He grabbed my wrist,” she said, and gave her a discerning lecture: “Anytime we tell we to do anything, we wish we to do accurately what we tell we to do and zero some-more and zero less.”

That was a obvious gauge during Massey Energy. Middle managers would spasmodic find cans of Dad’s Root Beer on their desks — a mnemonic for “Do as Don Says.”

Don Blankenship, scheduled to mount hearing in October, spoke to reporters on Apr 6, 2010, a day after a disaster, as crews worked to rescue miners.

Mike Munden/Reuters

Mr. Blankenship’s quasi-dictatorial supervision character as arch executive constructed fantastic formula for Massey, transforming it from a comparatively medium business dominated by a unaccompanied family into a residence that operated some-more than 150 mines and brought in some-more than $2.6 billion in revenue. And Massey’s success carried Mr. Blankenship out of an bankrupt pinch of Appalachia to a roost as one of West Virginia’s many feared and absolute figures. When he encountered politicians and judges who stood opposite his free-market, anti-regulatory views, he spent millions of dollars to finish their careers or frustrate their initiatives.

But on Apr 5, 2010, Mr. Blankenship’s unaccompanied purpose in West Virginia changed. That day, an blast during a Massey-run Upper Big Branch hint cave in Montcoal, W.Va., killed 29 men; it was a deadliest disaster in a attention in 40 years. A supervision assign force would eventually establish that corners had been cut on critical reserve measures and that managers had burned regulators by tipping off miners about approaching inspections.

Federal prosecutors came to a finish that Donald L. Blankenship, 65, was behind what they described as misconduct, and final Nov they indicted him on 4 assailant counts, including swindling to violate cave reserve standards and swindling to block sovereign cave reserve officials. He could face adult to 31 years in prison. The trial, creatively scheduled to start in January, has been pushed to Oct. 1. Mr. Blankenship has pleaded not guilty.

The censure was hailed in The Charleston Gazette as a breakthrough, and denounced by Mr. Blankenship’s allies as politically encouraged and grossly unfair. On one point, there was agreement: Federal authorities had taken a step yet fashion in West Virginia.

“The fact that he was indicted is positively amazing,” pronounced Ronald Eller, author of “Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945.” “For good over a century, organisation like Don Blankenship had control over jobs in this segment and, as a result, had control over roughly each other aspect of life. They used their resources and their resources to assure that they were not challenged.”

What changed? How did Mr. Blankenship spin a initial hint arch in a segment to face charges that could put him in prison? One answer is that a tragedy of Upper Big Branch was of such a scale and a apparent causes so niggardly — prosecutors contend a blast stemmed from a hellbent importance on prolongation during a responsibility of reserve — that a assailant box might have been inevitable. It came, too, during a time when mercantile shifts have reduced a energy of hint kings, who now sequence over fiefs in decline.

Then there is Mr. Blankenship himself, a male who can come opposite as a animation of a corporate villain. He tangled with inspectors and buffaloed rivals. He is a Republican in a state that was prolonged a Democratic redoubt, and he seemed to penchant creation open officials his enemies.

“He roughly walked out there with a neon pointer that pronounced ‘I’m a bully, and we brave we to do something about it,’ ” pronounced Larry V. Starcher, a former state Supreme Court of Appeals justice, who mostly clashed with Mr. Blankenship. “Ultimately, adequate people were saying, ‘Good God, how can we let a male get divided with that?’ ”

40 Million Tons of Coal

Mr. Blankenship is giveaway on a $5 million bond and limited by a decider to southern West Virginia and tools of Kentucky, as good as trips to Washington to see his lawyers. He lives in a small village of Sprigg, W.Va, in a immature residence with white trim behind a sealed steel gate. Considering his means — he was paid $17.8 million in 2009 in income alone — a place is frequency grand. When we pulled adult to a embankment in March, a phone beside it was out of order, yet maybe some notice apparatus worked. Within minutes, a male pulled adult in a automobile and kindly asked what we wanted. we pronounced that we hoped to talk Mr. Blankenship. He took my hit information and said, “I know he’d like to tell we his story, yet I’m not certain he can.”

He can’t, his counsel William W. Taylor III pronounced in a phone call a following week, citing a opening trial. Friends and supporters possibly won’t lapse calls or ask anonymity before talking. We’re a prolonged approach from a Don Blankenship who scolded Washington politicians in a debate before thousands of people during a convene starring Ted Nugent, hold on a mountaintop cave site in 2009.

A commemorative to a depressed miners in Whitesville, W.Va.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Mr. Blankenship, Massey’s C.E.O. given 2000, built a association into an attention behemoth that employed some 6,000 workers and mined about 40 million tons of hint a year. Unlike other business leaders, he never dazzled with glamour or charm. Six-foot-3 and husky, he speaks so gently in open that he’s roughly mumbling. His voice is as prosaic as a dial tone.

Silence, however, has never matched him. Last year, Mr. Blankenship consecrated a documentary, now posted on YouTube, called “Upper Big Branch — Never Again.” In it, he and a organisation of consultants contend that a means of a blast during Upper Big Branch was a weird overflow of healthy gas.

“We do have instances that are geologic anomalies,” Gary D. Aho, a geologist, says in a documentary. “It’s unpredictable, unanticipated, and it’s simply an hapless collision when it happens.”

(Mr. Aho and others in a film after pronounced they had no firsthand believe of Upper Big Branch and no thought who had saved a documentary.)

“Never Again” was a come-back to an investigation, consecrated by a state, that came to unequivocally opposite conclusions. At Upper Big Branch, a news found, a movement system, that is essential to gripping a atmosphere transparent of flamable gases, was woefully inadequate. In Jun 2009, for instance, sovereign cave inspectors found airflow of 147 cubic feet per notation in an area where regulations called for 9,000 cubic feet per minute. Just as bad, bomb hint mud expelled by coal-cutting apparatus in subterraneous mines wasn’t neutralized with sufficient amounts of pulverized limestone, called stone dust.

Jason Stanley was 18 years aged and operative with a organisation pumping H2O out of a cave a day of a disaster. His change was over, and he was streamer out on a mantrip, a form of convey that transports workers. About 20 mins from a exit, he after told a counsel for a United States Labor Department, a atmosphere unexpected became a white haze so thick he couldn’t see his outstretched hand.

With a cave filled with gas and hint dust, all that was blank was a spark, and that was combined usually after 3 p.m., according to a state’s report, when a device called a longwall shearer cut into a sandstone mine’s roof. What sounded to many like a unaccompanied blast was indeed a period of mile-long blasts, milliseconds apart, with airborne hint mud portion as a compound and feeding a inferno. Fireballs erupted in mixed directions, incinerating some men, abrasive others. It felt to one survivor like a impulse “when a universe came to an end.”

To Mr. Stanley, who was about a thousand feet from an exit and some-more than a mile from a explosion, it felt “like a overflow of yellow jackets severe me,” he said, sitting in a bureau of his counsel one new morning.

“Rock, dust, debris. we remember usually perplexing to find a approach out.”

The mantrip that came out of a cave behind him was commissioned with bodies, he said, a initial organisation of corpses he saw that day.

“Eyes filled with dirt, mouths filled with dirt, ears filled with dirt,” pronounced Tommy Davis, another former Upper Big Branch miner, who was sitting with Mr. Stanley, describing those corpses. “Say we hang we in a room and siphon mud in on we while we stood there, until we can’t take no more. That’s what it was like.”

The ID tab that Jason Stanley wore while operative in a Upper Big Branch mine. Mr. Stanley survived a 2010 blast there.

Ty Wright for The New York Times

Mr. Davis mislaid a son, a hermit and a nephew in a disaster.

Code Words and Cover-Ups

It took bid to means a dangerous conditions inside Upper Big Branch, according to prosecutors, investigators and depositions in cases associated to a disaster. Guards during a gates of a skill would warning managers when sovereign reserve inspectors showed adult unexpectedly, and those managers would afterwards call foremen who were underground. Code difference like “It’s a pale day” meant that warn visitors were on their way.

Miners would be educated to cover adult reserve violations, like accumulations of hint mud and unsound ventilation. Gary May, who was a superintendent during Upper Big Branch, told investigators that Chris Blanchard, who was boss of a Massey auxiliary Performance Coal Company, said, “I don’t wish no inspectors going to a operative sections unannounced.” More than 100 Upper Big Branch employees were in on a allege warning system, pronounced Mr. May, who was after condemned to 21 months in jail on a sovereign swindling charge.

Above them all stood Mr. Blankenship. According to former employees, he was sent prolongation updates from Massey mines each 30 minutes, a swell of information that he complicated like a broker examination a ticker. The censure says that when he schooled of slowdowns — for construction or repairs, for instance — he peppered managers with memos. “We’ll worry about movement issues or other issues during an suitable time,” he wrote in 2008 to an Upper Big Branch executive, referring to dual sections of a mine. “Now is not a time.” The same year he wrote a memo with a streamer “High Costs,” in that he complained, “Children could run these mines improved than we all do.”

This kind of micromanaging is pivotal to bargain Mr. Blankenship’s authorised peril.

“One reason that Blankenship is being prosecuted is that he was opposite than other tip hint executives,” pronounced Patrick McGinley, an author of a state’s news on a disaster and a highbrow during West Virginia University College of Law. “Most C.E.O.s don’t get prolongation annals each half-hour by fax. That places him right in a mine, hands on. That creates him vulnerable.”

Mr. Blankenship is also a reason regulators were incompetent to urge reserve during Upper Big Branch, according to prosecutors. As they dryly remarkable in a indictment, zero of those hurry-up memos done any anxiety to safety, even yet a cave was cited about 500 times by a sovereign Mine Safety and Health Administration in a year before a disaster. Many of a citations were for “significant and substantial” violations, tangible by a group as “reasonably expected to outcome in critical damage or illness.” The movement complement was a unchanging target, agreeable 61 citations in a dual years before a explosion.

Mr. Blankenship states in a “Never Again” video that a movement complement during Upper Big Branch was a usually one that a group would approve, and that it was distant defective to a one that he and his engineers had wanted to install. M.S.H.A. vehemently denies this. Records filed in justice in early May advise that Mr. Blankenship was personally relieved that a group was perplexing to levy a will. The filings suggested that Mr. Blankenship had personally available hundreds of hours of conversations in his office. During one of those conversations, in Nov 2009, he told Massey’s arch handling officer: “Sometimes I’m ripped with what we see about a idiocy we do. Maybe if it weren’t for M.S.H.A., we’d blow ourselves up.”

No matter what caused a disaster, a sum of it left experts stupefied. It sounded to them like a failure from another era.

“We haven’t had a hint mud blast in 20 years,” pronounced Celeste Monforton, a former M.S.H.A. process confidant who now teaches during George Washington University. “They are totally preventable, and everybody knows it. Coal mud explosions occur in a Ukraine and China. Not a United States.”

Josh and Kaitlyn Kilgore, residents of a circuitously town, paid their respects in Apr to a depressed miners during a commemorative done of helmets and crosses during a opening to Upper Big Branch.

Ty Wright for The New York Times

‘Massey’s Way’

Mr. Blankenship was carried in Delorme, W.Va, an unincorporated railroad-depot city straddling a Tug Fork river. His mother, Nancy McCoy, recognised him while her father was during quarrel in Korea and he never met his biological father, according to an comment in “The Price of Justice: A True Story of Greed and Corruption,” a book by Laurence Leamer about an epic lawsuit opposite Massey. The integrate split, and Ms. McCoy used income from a divorce allotment to buy a tiny gas hire and preference store. Don and his siblings were carried in an unprepared cinder-block home so tighten to a tyrannise marks that he could roughly hold a trains.

“As a observant goes, we were bad and we didn’t know it,” Mr. Blankenship wrote on an autobiographical website. “We had an latrine that was nicer than a one many of a neighbors had. We always had shoes.”

His mom worked 90 or some-more hours a week and taught her children to mind a store in her absence. There was no income register, that meant appropriation some trickery with numbers, and Mr. Blankenship would after cruise by Marshall University in 3 years, with a vital in accounting. He assimilated Massey in 1982, as an bureau manager during a auxiliary called Rawl Sales Processing. Married, with dual children, he eventually changed into a superintendent’s house, a same residence in Sprigg where he lives today.

He renowned himself during Rawl Sales by heading a deadlock opposite a United Mine Workers of America. The quarrel took some-more than a year, and incited violent. As a souvenir, Mr. Blankenship kept a radio that he pronounced was shot by by pro-union forces. In a documentary about a conflict, “Mine War on Blackberry Creek,” Mr. Blankenship is interviewed during a desk, wearing a short-sleeve shirt and explaining his speculation of capitalism.

“Unions, communities, people, everybody’s going to have to learn to accept that in a United States we have a entrepreneur society,” he told a filmmakers, “and that capitalism, from a business viewpoint, is presence of a many productive.”

By 1991, Mr. Blankenship was boss of a Massey subsidiary. He ran it with an rational eye on a bottom line, laying off some-more than 10 percent of employees and slicing benefits. He also bought adult smaller cave companies and parcels of land for new mines.

One of a latter was Upper Big Branch, that non-stop in 1994. Jerry Shelton was among a initial dozen or so hired during a site. He had been a miner for 26 years, yet he schooled right divided that Massey was different. The managers told him so.

“They said, ‘Forget about mining a approach we used to given Massey does it improved than anyone else,’ and everybody had to do it Massey’s way,” Mr. Shelton recalled. Nothing about a cave seemed unsafe, he said. But Massey’s way, he shortly learned, did not embody overtime compensate or time off for lunch. There was small intercourse and copiousness of tension.

“The hazard was always, ‘If we don’t like it, we’ve got organisation lined adult watchful to work,’ ” he told me. “There were a lot of organisation out of work during a time.”

As Massey grew, Mr. Blankenship found his interests colliding with those of inaugurated officials. This led him into politics, a step that can be traced to 1998, when Massey was sued by Harman Mining for machinations that a jury after motionless were dictated to expostulate a association out of business. (This was a lawsuit decorated in “The Price of Justice” and also a impulse for John Grisham’s 2008 novel, “The Appeal.”) Hugh Caperton, who owned Harman, was awarded $50 million for tortious interference.

Jerry Shelton during his home in Masseyville, W.Va. He started during Upper Big Branch in 1969 and continued operative in a mines until he was harm on a pursuit in 1998.

Ty Wright for The New York Times

Mr. Blankenship appealed, yet he insincere he would remove by a 3-to-2 statute in state Supreme Court. So he spent roughly $3 million perplexing to urge his contingency by changing a crew on a bench, according to news reports. A decider named Warren McGraw was adult for re-election, and Mr. Blankenship funneled income to a tax-exempt classification called And for a Sake of a Kids. It ran a debate that enclosed a TV ad accusing a decider of voting “to let a child assailant out of prison.”

At a same time, he bankrolled ads for Brent Benjamin, an different corporate counsel in Charleston. Mr. Benjamin won a election, and when a Caperton box came before him, he declined to recuse himself. Instead, he sided with Massey in a 3-to-2 preference that set aside a $50 million verdict. It seemed as yet Mr. Blankenship had saved $47 million by spending $3 million.

(The box was listened in 2009 by a United States Supreme Court, that resolved that Mr. Benjamin should have sat out a Caperton case, citing Mr. Blankenship’s “significant and jagged influence” in a election. The box was sent behind to West Virginia, where appeals continue to this day.)

By 2006, Mr. Blankenship had some-more energy than many inaugurated officials. He poured some $6 million into state initiatives and races, including $650,000 to improved a bond devise to seaside adult a state’s grant system.

“There was a year when he spent millions perplexing to spin a state Legislature Republican,” pronounced a former United States deputy Nick Joe Rahall II, a Democrat whose district enclosed many of what were once Massey mines. “It was like he was poking people in a chest while he was pulling them down a street.”

Praised for Competence

It is probable to find defenders of Don Blankenship if we discuss his name in a right place. One of those places, it incited out, was a gun store where we went to ask directions to Mr. Blankenship’s home. A male in a upkeep uniform — relating gray shirt and pants, name stenciled on his chest slot — explained a lane and afterwards smiled.

“I consider he’s removing railroaded,” he said.

“He’s unequivocally removing railroaded,” pronounced another male by a gun display, who wore a Massey Energy shirt. “You can take that to a bank.”

Neither of these organisation would exhibit their names, a initial given he does business with cave companies, and a second given he works for Alpha Natural Resources, a association that acquired Massey in 2011.

“I’m still wearing this Massey shirt given we used to work for Massey and Alpha is too inexpensive to give us Alpha shirts,” he said. “Alpha has no thought what it’s doing.”

Jason Stanley with his wife, Stacey, during home in Eskdale, W.Va. Mr. Stanley, who was 18 during a time of a blast, had finished his change and was on a convey a thousand feet from an exit and a mile from a explosion. Still, he said, it felt “like a overflow of yellow jackets severe me.”

Ty Wright for The New York Times

Both organisation were contemptible to see Mr. Blankenship out of a business and on hearing for one reason: He was competent. Actually, they pronounced he was many some-more than competent. Where other mines were closing, or have sealed given his departure, he kept thousands of people employed.

“Bottom line, we worked,” pronounced a miner, who explained that he was about to remove his pursuit during a soon-to-be-defunct Alpha mine. “Don Blankenship done millions, and we don’t determine with that. But he’s a businessman. And when he was using Massey, we worked.”

Still, we asked, doesn’t a blast during Upper Big Branch advise that Mr. Blankenship was inexcusably arrogant about safety?

No, both organisation said.

“How many mines did Massey have during that time?” asked a male in gray. “You’re perplexing to pin a censure for that blast on a C.E.O.? He has thousands of organisation operative for him: foremen, superintendents. And Don is ostensible to control each man? That’s ridiculous.”

Besides, Mr. Blankenship was endangered about safety, a miner said. He described an inducement module during Massey where employees would amass points if they did not get injured. Those points could be traded in for products like sport gear, outside cooking apparatus and gifts.

“You’d collect things out of a catalog, and they would broach it,” a miner said. “I got fishing poles by that program. My mother has purses — Guccis, and not knockoffs. Don started that.”

Even some of Mr. Blankenship’s detractors can serve admiring words. He stayed in a village even after accumulating good wealth. Also, he doesn’t lie. Kevin Thompson brought a class-action fit opposite Mr. Blankenship and Massey in 2004 for poisoning rivers and wells by injecting hint rubbish into deserted mines. The H2O caused mind cancer and high slow-down rates, Mr. Thompson pronounced in a complaint. (After a seven-year tussle, a fit was staid out of court, reportedly for $35 million.) Mr. Blankenship wasn’t during risk given he had H2O pumped from a circuitously city directly to his house.

“When we deposed him, we asked him given he commissioned his possess H2O line,” Mr. Thompson recalled. “And he pronounced something like, ‘Because Appalachian good H2O can be of bad peculiarity sometimes.’ Which is true. Now, it should be remarkable that a H2O is of bad peculiarity given of a century of mining. But he was revelation a truth.”

Like many who have fought Mr. Blankenship, Mr. Thompson pronounced he has wondered how a male who came from nothing, and never changed distant away, could seem to have so small magnetism for people in his community. One speculation harks behind to that “survival of a many productive” line in a documentary.

“I consider he usually doesn’t give credit to anyone who isn’t successful,” Mr. Thompson said. “In his mind, that’s their fault. He carried himself out of poverty, so given can’t they? That leads to this opinion that his neighbors are usually in a approach of profit.”

Mr. Stanley’s tattoos. The one on his left arm is dedicated to a friend, Cory Davis, who was killed. The other, he said, represents his personal dark from a disaster.

Ty Wright for The New York Times

Another speculation is that he has an accountant’s perspective of a world, one that reduces each preference to cost-benefit calculations. Even that reserve program, with a fishing poles and purses, was about saving money, pronounced Rick Wagner, a former technician during Upper Big Branch. If we get points for staying healthy, we are reduction expected to news an injury, that afterwards reduces doctor’s visits and with that, workers’ remuneration premiums.

“I knew organisation with slipped disks,” Mr. Wagner said, “and they didn’t news it given they didn’t wish to remove reserve reward points.”

An Ailing Industry

If a organisation in a gun emporium uttered something that sounds like nostalgia for Mr. Blankenship, it is substantially a emotional for improved mercantile times. In a years given Mr. Blankenship left Massey, hint has been on a decline. Domestic sales for electric energy era forsaken to 862 million tons in 2013 from a high of 1.05 billion tons in 2008, mostly given healthy gas started to excommunicate hint during energy plants, prolonged coal’s biggest customers, according to Seth Schwartz of Energy Ventures Analysis. Exports, including coal, have been badly harm by a clever dollar.

For these and other reasons, practice in a hint attention in executive Appalachia has forsaken from about 38,000 jobs in 2008 to usually bashful of 28,000 in 2013, according to a United States Energy Information Administration, a 27 percent decline. Estimates formed on Mine Safety and Health Administration information advise that 4,000 some-more jobs were mislaid final year.

“It’s generally bad given there is unequivocally no other practice in a area, generally during those salary levels,” Mr. Schwartz said. “Miners can acquire $60,000 to $80,000, and benefits. Nothing else there pays like that.”

Coal companies in ubiquitous demeanour anemic. Two of them, Patriot Coal and Xinergy Ltd., filed for failure insurance this year, and a third, Arch Coal, pronounced it was looking to restructure billions in debt. Alpha’s shares have collapsed to about 40 cents currently from some-more than $100 in 2008. Maybe it is not a fluke that a charge of a former hint C.E.O. coincides with a thrust in coal’s mercantile clout.

At a same time, sovereign regulators are reporting themselves in new ways, spurred in vast partial by a Upper Big Branch deaths. Mines operated by other companies also had terrible reserve records. But M.S.H.A. inspectors were for too prolonged calm with cosmetic patches, pronounced Ms. Monforton, a former process adviser.

“These inspectors took their jobs seriously,” she said, “but they were during these mines all a time, and they knew a superintendents, a managers. They weren’t there to be confrontational. They wanted cooperation, some behind and forth.”

In a years given Apr 5, 2010, a M.H.S.A. has begun to bring certain mines for a “pattern of violations,” a nomination that allows it to close down operations with visit and determined reserve issues. The group has hexed that energy for some-more than 40 years, yet it was Upper Big Branch that emboldened it to use it.

Three Massey employees have already been sent to jail over charges associated to Upper Big Branch, including fibbing to investigators. A self-assurance of Mr. Blankenship would vigilance a change in a change of energy in West Virginia and other vital coal-producing states. As Mr. Blankenship prepares for his day in court, small is famous about “the Defendant,” as he is called in filings. A decider gave him accede in late May to attend a veteran mud lane competition in Ohio, where his son was competing. But he was not authorised to transport to Las Vegas for a Christmas holiday. In denying that request, a decider cited “a poignant risk of nonappearance during justice record in a future.”

Which suggests that a decider does not know Mr. Blankenship unequivocally well. If he skipped court, it would be a initial time in his life that he had ever dodged a fight.