The Sleaze, Guilt and Punishment of Coal CEO Don Blankenship

Jim Hightower

Don Blankenship, the convicted CEO of Massey Energy Company, is known among West Virginians as "the dark lord of coal country."

Don Blankenship didn’t get what he deserves in his federal trial, but he definitely deserves what he got.

Guilty,” declared all 12 West Virginia jurors who pondered the charge that this arrogant and avaricious CEO of Massey Energy Company willfully conspired to violate America’s mine safety laws. As a result of that conspiracy, 29 miners were essentially murdered by the corporation on April 5, 2010, in a horrific explosion deep inside Massey’s Upper Big Branch coal mine.

Blankenship, a multimillionaire right-wing ideologue, union-buster, and political heavyweight, ran the Upper Big Branch mine like a lawless third-world operator. It was one of the most dangerous workplaces in the country, because this kingpin of King Coal relentlessly put profit over people, recklessly endangering miners. But coal is, indeed, king in West Virginia, so the laws are written to coddle the royals of the industry. Thus, Blankenship’s guilt is to be punished by a maximum of one year in prison – and his diamond-studded legal team intends to have the jury’s unanimous verdict of guilt tossed down the dark shaft of judicial favoritism for the rich.

What the mining baron deserved was to be put in stocks on the state’s capitol grounds, where he would be subjected to a steady stream of derision from the families of mineworkers who were degraded, made ill and even killed to haul up coal so Don could live in luxury. He escaped that justice, but he’ll never shake off the guilty judgment of the jurors – or of the American people who followed the long, widely covered trial that fully documented the rank immorality of this man and his ill-gotten fortune.

He undoubtedly thinks he got away with murder, but in the Court of Public Opinion, his legacy is that he has turned the name Blankenship into a four-letter word.

In fact, unlike the CEOs of most giant corporations, Blankenship’s outward appearance actually reveals what’s inside: an arrogant, conniving, cutthroat industrial thug.

Not for nothing was this thickset, mean-eyed West Virginian known as the dark lord of coal country.” He generated profits by working miners to exhaustion (and even to death), viciously busting unions, browbeating subordinates, running disgracefully unsafe mines, callously decapitating mountains as a cheap way to get at coal, willfully poisoning the region’s waterways and people with toxic mining waste and outright purchasing politicians to run errands for him. To him, the value of everything and everyone was measured by one thing: the dollar.

By that measure, Blankenship has always put the dearest value on himself, taking $18 million in personal pay in 2010 alone – the same year his disregard for safety ripped apart the 29 miners. He gets chauffeured around in a Bentley and a helicopter; he vacations on the French Riviera; and his primary mansion” is a vast estate secluded behind tall iron gates. But he also enjoys his nearby entertainment home,” a four-story castle pretentiously perched on a mountain peak so all the serfs can see that he is lord of the realm. Few townspeople are impressed. As Carmelita Brown said: I can see his house from my window. To me it’s like he made a statement, you know? He’s God. God on the mountain. But he’s as close to God as he’s going to get, up on that mountain.”

But Lord Don has taken a great fall, as he was ousted as CEO in 2010, and then finally, last week, was convicted for the conspiracy that led to the needless deaths of those 29 miners. He’s also widely despised because, as one local put it, he betrayed his own people.” Of course, he’s so narcissistic and materialistic that he says, I don’t care what people think. At the end of the day, Don Blankenship is going to die with more money than he needs.”

Or deserves. But if anyone ever deserved to die with nothing but a sack of cold cash to comfort him, this greedy industrialist is that person.

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Jim Hightower is the author of six books, including Thieves in High Places (Viking 2003). A well-known populist and former Texas Commissioner of Agriculture, he currently writes a nationally-syndicated column carried by 75 publications. He also writes a monthly newsletter titled The Hightower Lowdown, and contributes to the Progressive Populist.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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