Don Blankenship, Gilden Age Romantic

The good old days.

The good old days.

The federal criminal trial of ex-CEO of Massey Energy Don Blankenship has begun. If you’ll recall he was the dude in charge of the company that oversaw that horrific coal mine disaster in West Virginia in 2010. He’s not being indicted for the 29 deaths as a result of the explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine, but rather for creating the corporate environment for safety law violations and subsequently lying to regulators.

This trial is already a year in the making and will seemingly continue to be a drawn-out affair. In the meantime regale yourself with anecdotes of Blankenship’s sterling character and biography, as reported here by Grist’s Mason Adams, which reads like a 40s pulp short story:

In pursuit of an unemployment claim against the company that hired her as Blankenship’s maid, Deborah May described him throwing temper tantrums over minor mistakes — like the time when, finding bacon in his McDonald’s egg-and-cheese biscuit, Blankenship threw it, grabbed her wrist, and told her, “Any time I want you to do exactly what I tell you to do and nothing more and nothing less.”


Other lawsuits claimed Massey had injected heavy metal-laden coal slurry into abandoned mines, poisoning nearby rivers and groundwater used by local residents. Blankenship lived in the neighborhood, but he wasn’t affected because Massey had paid for a private water line to his house from the nearby town of Matewan.

I mean, I’ll turn up for finding bacon in my egg-and-cheese biscuit as much as the next guy but if this was a procedural cable crime show the lead writer would say “Oh come on, that’s too much.” And the following quote could be one nugget of a Justified episode, right before Raylan shows up with an ax to sever the clean water line for a confession. Add in the kvetching political maneuvers over the years to foster a friendly business environment, as well as avoid other lawsuits, and we have a hopeless romantic for the Gilded Age.

More seriously, this case largely only exists because of Blankenship’s brute micro-management style. Having such a heavy hand has allowed the prosecuting U.S. attorney to pursue the first criminal case against a coal executive for safety violations. Allow me to type that again: this is the first criminal case against a coal executive. If you have even a passing knowledge of the history of coal in this country you know how much a big deal this is—and how depressing it is that there is still a lingering uncertainty for a conviction in this out-of-the-norm story.

It raises the question of what a company led by less-theatrical executives might get away with in the pursuit of profits piled on top of dead bodies. Oh, right, we already have the answer to that one.


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