Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship speaks out

[image] Don Blankenship was the guest speaker at a monthly coal event Thursday.

Don Blankenship has a lot to say.

To Blankenship, dirt track racing is a lot like the coal industry.

China is an emerging, if not already dominant, global power.

And whether it is or it isn't, coal should be king.

"Coal's not in trouble," Blankenship said. "West Virginia is in trouble."

The Tug Valley Mining Institute held its monthly dinner meeting in Chapmanville Thursday. Blankenship, arguably the most powerful coal baron in West Virginia history, was listed as the guest speaker. Dozens of coal professionals from Kentucky and West Virginia packed the Logan Country Club to hear him speak.

"I was very surprised when I saw him on the agenda tonight," said Tony Thomas, a coal mine vendor. "Hopefully he has some good news for us. I think that's what most of the people here are wanting to hear. A ray of hope in the coal industry because right now it's not looking too bright for us.

Before his speech, Blankenship agreed to do an interview with 13 News reporter Alanna Autler.

"I've been around a long time and there's people who like what I have to say and people that don't," he said.

The former CEO of Massey Energy is talking a lot these days--considering he nearly vanished from the public eye.

His controversial image peaked in April 2010, when 29 miners died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal. Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Company operated the mine.

It was considered the nation's biggest mining disaster in 40 years.

A report issued in 2011 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration found 369 citations at the mine--21 of them flagrant violations of safety standards.

Three years after the explosion and several MSHA investigations, Blankenship maintains Massey ran safe mines.

"Those of us who work for Massey, and particularly me, we did more for safety and more for the industry than any company who came before us, so inside in our mind and our heart we know we did the right thing," Blankenship said. "It's unfortunate that people in the media and adversaries of the coal business use the explosion to damage the company and the industry but the fact of the matter is, Massey ran the safest mines in the industry for decades."

Federal prosecutors have said they're investigating a conspiracy among former Massey officials and confirmed their investigation remains ongoing.

David Hughart was the highest-ranking Massey executive convicted of a federal crime and sentenced to prison. Hughart pleaded guilty in February to a felony charge of conspiracy to impede MSHA, and a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy to violate mine safety laws.

Hughart implicated Blankenship during his hearing. He admitted to U.S. District Judge Irene Berger that with the help of others, he gave warnings to miners about inspections for nearly 10 years.

When Berger asked who ordered this policy--if indeed it was one--Hughart replied, "the Chief Executive officer."

Karen Hughart explained her husband's statement outside the courthouse in Beckley.

"He was talking about Don Blankenship," Hughart's wife said.

Blankenship called the accusations "clearly false."

"I feel bad for Dave," he said. "He got hooked apparently on prescription drugs and his life went downhill rapidly and he was let go from Massey before the explosion even because for fraud and drugs, so basically I feel sorry for him."

According to documents obtained by NPR and the Charleston Gazette, Blankenship declared during a deposition Hughart was fired from Massey in 2010 amidst a negative drug test and allegations of "a kickback scheme and nepotism."

In September, Hughart was sentenced to 42 months in prison and three years supervised release. He was also arrested on drug charges before his sentencing, which resulted in a bond revocation.

Attempts to contact Hughart and his attorney Friday were unsuccessful.

Federal law makes it a crime to give advance notice of inspections. Blankenship denies he personally notified miners, but then clarified his statement.

"It's not against the law for the coal miners outside to let the others know inspectors are on the property," he said.

So what's Blankenship doing now?

Blankenship's Twitter account, virtually inactive during 2011, jolted back to life in late 2012. His most recent tweets address the government shutdown and the debt ceiling.

In 2012, Blankenship launched a personal website entitled, "Don Blankenship--American Competitionist." He also touted his other website, "Save the Country."

"I doubt I'll be as heavily involved as I been in the past," he said. "We had a lot of success with McGraw and reducing the food tax...."

Media outlets extensively reported how Blankenship contributed $3 million to the political campaign of Brent Benjamin, who was vying for a seat on the state Supreme Court in 2004.

Benjamin ultimately replaced Justice Warren McGraw.

"With personal involvement, I've done my part," Blankenship said.

You could also say the baron is back in coal.

Blankenship started a business in early 2011, according to records with the Kentucky Secretary of State. He is listed as the sole officer in the McCoy Coal Group, a company based in Belfry.

Neither McCoy Coal Group nor Blankenship have pending or current mining permits in Kentucky, according to Jim Adamson, with the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources. The department regulates mining reclamation activities for surface and underground mines and coal preparation plants.

"The biggest thing we're doing is just trading coal, and trading equipment, buying and selling mine-related things, not mining any coal," said Blankenship, explaining his venture.

While he's not mining coal, he implied he wants others to do so.

During his speech at the Logan Country Club, he laid out a plan to resurrect the industry. Tactics includes branding challengers as "anti-American" and "exposing historical green impacts."

"EPA stands for Equal Poverty for All," he told the crowd.

Blankenship launched into lengthy condemnations of West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton, the media, and President Barack Obama-- all diatribes consistent with previous statements. Using a PowerPoint slideshow, he flashed a picture of bullet trains in the Guanzhou Rail Yard.

"The Chinese are embarrassing our country," Blankenship said. Minutes later, he added: "Brave soldiers don't win wars, technology wins wars."

The former executive also responded to questions about his political aspirations.

"I don't think I'll be too politically active myself," Blankenship said. "I think the biggest thing I'll do tonight is encourage the group to be more politically active."

More than anything, perhaps Blankenship's rare public appearance signals a desire for relevance in a industry that some say is desperately needing its own.

"I appear to be extremely outspoken partially because the rest of the industry wouldn't speak up," Blankenship said.

When asked if he will evaporate from the pubic sphere once again, Blankenship replied: "West Virginia will always be home."

Alpha Natural Resources acquired Massey Energy in 2011. The Alpha Foundation was created as part of a "non-prosecution agreement" between the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of West Virginia, and Alpha Natural Resources after the UBB disaster in 2010. A portion of the $210 settlement was set aside of safety purposes. The foundation announced its first round of companies to receive winnings September 30.

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