Who Is Donald Blankenship? Coal King Gets 1-Year Sentence After Mine Deaths

The union-busting, climate-change-denying magnate maintains he did nothing wrong.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

“Donald Blankenship — American Competitionist.” That’s the bold welcome on the King of Coal’s homepage, set on a backdrop of twinkling stars and stripes.

The now-retired former CEO of Massey Energy Company has just been sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to violate mine safety standards. It’s the first time someone so high up the chain of command has been found guilty of breaking safety rules.

The 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, which killed 29 people, spurred the investigation into Blankenship’s activities as head of the West Virginia coal company, although he has not been charged directly in connection with the disaster.

Instead, a jury found him guilty of putting profits above safety by encouraging mine workers to flout safety regulations when they interfere with production. The court heard that employees were trained explicitly to skirt the rules by doing things like placing air-quality monitoring equipment inside clothing or in fresh-air corridors to skew results.

Don Blankenship

Blankenship is not shy about his capitalist idealism. His website is full of ridiculous essays denying that climate change is a real problem and blame mine safety regulators for problems in the industry. His first brush with notoriety was in the 1980s, when he led a successful union-busting effort that sparked violence on both sides.

He’s known for building a four-story villa on an Appalachian mountaintop and traveling the country by black helicopter.

He tells his own rags-to-riches story on his website. “My father and my Mom each worked 80 to 90 hours per week, which taught me to be independent at a very early age. As the saying goes, we were poor but didn’t know it. We had an outhouse that was nicer than the one most of our neighbors had. We always had shoes.”

Blankenship skipped more college classes than he attended through college, but still graduated a four-year program in three years, paying his way by working in the coal mines through the summer, he writes:

In short, my life has been a great one. I experienced the cold chill of an Appalachian outhouse in January winters, but I have also dined at the dinner tables of some of the richest and most powerful people in the world, including at the White House private dining table. Hopefully I can communicate to you my wide range of life experiences and what they have taught me, and in doing so, I can make a small contribution to saving our Country.

He continues:

As you reflect on what I write, remember that even Robert Kennedy Jr., said that I am an honest man. You should also know that I hold not only the liberals of the media, the union, and the environmental movement responsible for the plight of our country, but also those who call themselves conservatives who oversee corporate America. Many of these corporate executives too often place the pledge they sign each quarter to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley [accounting and anti-fraud legislation] above their much more important “Pledge of Allegiance” to the United States of America and to that for which it stands.

In 2014, on the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch explosion, Blankenship released a self-funded documentary exonerating himself and the company from fault, and pointing the finger instead towards regulators and political enemies:

The outspoken Republican has gone relatively quiet since then. He hasn’t tweeted or written for his website in more than a year.

“My main point is wanting to express sorrow to the families and everyone for what happened,” Blankenship told the court before his sentencing this week, according to the New York Times.

He later added: “I am not guilty of a crime.”

A truck passes a sign on April 6, 2010 in Whitesville, West Virginia.

Matt Sullivan/Getty
Related Tags