One of the most loathed businessmen in West Virginia is seeking to win a seat in the Senate. Don Blankenship, who was given the damning title “Dark Lord of Coal Country” by Rolling Stone magazine, is vying to be the Republican Party’s pick for the Senate from West Virginia. Yet the coal industry mogul’s negligence was blamed for one of the worst coal mining disasters in 40 years.
In 2010, a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by Massey Energy—where Blankenship was then CEO—killed 29 miners in West Virginia. The deaths of the workers led to a heightened focus on mining safety and possible violations that put the lives of the workers at risk. But in Blankenship’s school of thought, as Rolling Stone reported, no such concern seemed important. Instead of taking responsibility for the workers and their well-being, Blankenship called the fatal incident an “act of God.” At the time, the coal tycoon told Metro News’ Talkline that the explosion was caused by other factors; he said cutting sandstones was “risky” and blamed a gas leak that became exacerbated by a faulty ventilation system.
But the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said Blankenship’s company had committed a whopping 48 safety violations. MSHA also shared a 2005 memo Blankenship circulated within Massey Energy, telling employees to focus on coal product over everything else. “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers, or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever) you need to ignore them and run coal,” Blankenship wrote.
With public pressure on him, a reputation for bullying his employees and accusations including dumping slurry, a highly toxic liquid contained cement and coal, in drinking water, Blankenship was convicted of conspiring to violate coal mining safety regulations in 2016. He was sentenced to just a year in prison.
Now that he’s out, Blankenship is reportedly capitalizing on the fervor of West Virginian Republicans who could, if they ignore the litany of charges of depravity against him, vote him into power. The New Republic reported that Blankenship has spent some $2 million in advertising to win support in the state. But some remain unconvinced, especially those who lost loved ones in the 2010 explosion.
Gary Quarles, who lost his son in the incident, said seeing Blankenship on TV makes him sick. “It’s like a thorn rubbing against you all the time, just nagging, nagging, nagging at you. His daughter is on there talking good about her dad, or there’s a few other people on there talking good about Don Blankenship. That man ain’t worth five cents. All he’s done is make money reaped off the coal they’ve raked out of West Virginia, and the hell with everything else,” Quarles said.
It’s hard to say whether the ex-Massey CEO has a chance to win, but some locals are worried, including veteran politicians. Former Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall told the New Republic, “My sense of decency and morality tells me that West Virginians won’t fall for it, but then again I didn’t think they’d fall for Donald Trump’s shenanigans either.”