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.