Coal baron Don Blankenship is standing trial after 29 people died in his mine (Grist & Vox)

The autocratic, micro-managing, bludgeoning style that won throwback Appalachian coal baron Don Blankenship the ire of environmentalists, the fear of underlings, and the title “Dark Lord of Coal Country” from Rolling Stone may finally have caught up with him.

The opening arguments began this month in Blankenship’s federal criminal trial. He faces charges of conspiring to avoid safety laws and lying to regulators that could put him behind bars for up to 31 years.

Blankenship casts a long shadow over the Appalachian coal industry. Since the early 1980s, he’s fought labor unions, regulatory agencies, environmental activists, and other coal companies. Under his guidance, Massey Energy grew to become the fourth largest U.S. coal producer, and the largest in Appalachia, by the time of his retirement at the end of 2010. He became known not just for his business exploits, but for railing against “greeniacs” (his term for environmentalists) and what he called a “War on Coal,” carried out by federal government agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Blankenship’s downfall was triggered by the April 5, 2010, explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 men and was the worst coal disaster in 40 years. Four separate investigations found that poor safety practices in the mine allowed for the explosion, which occurred when a spark from a longwall machine, which cuts huge slices of coal, ignited a pocket of methane, creating a fireball and triggering a bigger explosion when it hit piles of coal dust.

Read my preview of Blankenship’s criminal trial at Grist or at Vox.

Gays in Roanoke used to hide who they were — until a deadly bar shooting changed everything (Washington Post)

The yellow mums appeared at Backstreet Cafe’s door well before people began arriving for the vigil. John Goodhart Sr. sent the flowers, as he did every year on this day, with a note: “Never forget. Never again. NEVER.”

It was his way of paying tribute to his Verizon co-worker Danny Overstreet, who was killed 15 years ago at a gathering spot for gay people in a closeted city.

Backstreet was a gay bar at a time when the sexual orientation of its customers remained hidden — a haven for an underground culture. Its role in Roanoke was exposed Sept. 22, 2000, when Ronald Edward Gay, a former Marine who had been taunted for his name and hated it, walked in, ordered a beer, spotted two men embracing — and opened fire. He killed Overstreet, 43, and wounded six others, including Joel Tucker, who had to deal with more than just the bullet wound in his back.

“When it happened, I was not out to my family,” said Tucker, who was then 40 and worked, as he still does, for United Parcel Service. “I was not out to my job. I wasn’t out to anybody except my very close friends.”

Back then, few could have predicted the seismic changes that were coming to the country, to Virginia and to Roanoke — on same-sex marriage, on gays serving in the military, on the emergence of openly gay athletes, chief executives and celebrities.

Backstreet’s identity has shifted, too. It is managed by Deanna Marcin, who was a married man named John Marcin before divorcing and becoming a transgender woman. The bar still caters to outsiders in this city of nearly 100,000 in southwest Virginia, but they are mostly punk rockers and metalheads, rather than gay men and lesbians.

Read more about the transformation of individuals, a bar, a street, a city and the country in my story for the Washington Post.

Foreign companies invest in western Virginia, & a new regulation affects wood stoves (Roanoke Business)

The October 2015 issue of Roanoke Business features a pair of my stories:

– The cover leader looks at international investment in the Roanoke and New River valleys. Volvo, Korona Candles, Red Sun Farms — why are these companies locating here, and what does it mean for the region?

– I also examined the impact of a new EPA regulation on a Floyd County wood stove dealer.

Read more, either online or in the print edition, which is available free this month on racks in Roanoke & NRV grocery stores.