EARLY ON A COLD, rainy December morning, sleepy but excited children and their sleepy but less excited parents began to line up outside an old brick furniture store in Madison, West Virginia. Madison is a small town of about 2,600 on the Little Coal River about an hour southwest of Charleston. The town is best known as the gateway to the southern coalfields, once called West Virginia's billion dollar coalfields because they were so vast and so rich. The legacy of Big Coal is visible everywhere here, from the statue of the coal miner in front of the Boone County courthouse to the thin layer of black dust that coats the railroad tracks on Main Street. Southern West Virginia is still the most productive coal region in the state, but its glory days are long past. Like most coal towns, Madison feels like a harsh, unforgiving place, where just getting by is an accomplishment.
But not that morning. That day, the biggest coal company in West Virginia, Massey Energy, was holding its 2004 Christmas Extravaganza. Madison is practically a company town for Massey—several of its biggest strip mines are in the hills nearby, and the $3.1 billion company employs some eight hundred workers in the area, making it by far the largest employer. Massey employees and their spouses had spent most of the last week getting ready for the Christmas Extravaganza, brightening up the old furniture store with a Christmas tree, tinsel, and holiday cheer. Santa Claus would be there, along with his elves, passing out free toys to children and free frozen turkeys to their parents. Massey had deliberately targeted the poorest of the poor in the region, sending home flyers with children who were on the free lunch program at the local schools. "Dear Family;' the flyer began, "Massey Energy Company is having the Second Annual Christmas Extravaganza and your child is invited!" About five thousand of these flyers had been distributed. "This is our way of giving back to the community;' a Massey spokesperson told a local reporter. "For some of these kids, this is the only Christmas they'll have."
By the time the doors opened at 11:00 A.M., the line of wet, cold families was nearly a block long. People began filing in, passing a pair of security guards, and were greeted by cheerful Massey employees and their spouses in red shirts and Santa Claus hats. The eager, bright-eyed kids were guided through aisles of toys—dolls, portable CD players, toy soldiers, miniature NASCAR racecars, stuffed animals. They were urged to take two toys each, and only two, and keep moving. And they did, gratefully and happily. It was an assembly line of Christmas joy.
At about noon, a big green and white customized bus with tinted windows pulled up beside the old brick building. It was the kind of vehicle a country music star might travel in. But when the door opened, it was not Kenny Chesney who emerged—it was Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy. He was dressed casually, in a soft leather bomber jacket and the same red Massey Energy Christmas Extravaganza shirt that all his employees had on. As he made his way toward the party, heads turned—even the kids in wheelchairs knew who he was and, more important, that he was one of the richest men in West Virginia. His compensation in 2004 alone had been more than $6 million, making him the highest-paid executive not only in the state but in the entire coal industry. For Blankenship, the holidays had come early: just weeks before the Christmas Extravaganza, he had cashed in Massey stock worth $17 million. This was all the more remarkable considering the fact that Massey was hardly a cash cow. During the previous three years, the company had lost at least $60 million.
Blankenship's political power was as impressive as his wealth. Massey's board of directors was made up of some of the most influential players in West Virginia business and politics, including James H. "Buck" Harless, a coal and timber baron who had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Bush campaign in 2000 and 2004. (After serving four years on Massey's board, Harless resigned in early 2005.) During the 2004 election, Blankenship had spent $3.5 million of his own money—a huge amount in a small state like West Virginia—on political attack ads to unseat a state supreme court justice who had ruled against Massey in a civil case, potentially costing the company millions in damages. Afew months later, Blankenship spent another half million or so on ads to defeat Democratic governor Joe Manchin's controversial proposal to refinance West Virginia's crippling public pension debts. When the governor dared to suggest that Blankenship's high-profile involvement in state politics might lead to closer scrutiny of his coal business, Blankenship promptly sued the governor, accusing him of violating his right to free speech by threatening to selectively enforce state laws against him. One admiring conservative columnist tagged Blankenship, with unintended irony, "the ultimate twenty first-century coal baron."
Despite his wealth and power, Blankenship is not an imposing figure. He is fifty-six years old, with dark thinning hair, a mustache, and a modest potbelly. If you didn't know better, you might mistake him for a moderately successful Chevy salesman. But his understated manner—"I'm a poor guy with a lot of money," he likes to say—and his folksy drawl are misleading. According to one former Massey executive, Blankenship kept a TV with a bullet hole in it in his office for years, a souvenir of the labor battles of the early 1990s and a not-so-subtle reminder to guests that he was not easily intimidated.
Blankenship, who often identifies himself as a born-again Christian, comes from an old Appalachian family that arrived in Kentucky in the mid-1800s. The Blankenships settled near what is now the tiny town of Stopover, which is just a mile or so across the Tug Fork River from Mingo County, West Virginia. Blankenship's mother, Nancy McCoy, is a descendant of the clan renowned for their bloody battles with the Hatfields back in the 1880s. Blanken ship never knew his father. In the early 1950s, while his mother was raising three older children in Stopover and her husband was away in Korea, she got lonely, met someone else, and became pregnant with Don. Her marriage broke up, and she and her infant son wound up on a bus, eventually settling in Mingo County (where Blankenship still lives). She was laterjoined there by her three older kids and used money from her divorce settlement to open a roadside grocery store and gas station. In Blankenship, hard times bred ambition. "I knew I had to do something because I had nothing to fall back on;' Blankenship has said, speaking of his childhood. "I knew I wasn't getting off to a real good start." After graduating second in his high school class in 1968, Blankenship attended Marshall University in West Virginia, where he studied accounting. He spent ten years working in the food industry—first for a big cookie company, then for a bakery that delivers packaged bread throughout the Southeast—before he grew homesick for Appalachia. In 1982, Massey called and offered him a job in coal sales. Ten years later, he was running the company.
Not long after Blankenship arrived at the Christmas Extravaganza, someone handed him a red Santa hat, which he pulled down over his balding head. He looked ridiculous, of course, but who cared? It was Christmas. He stepped into the old furniture store and spent the next few hours hobnobbing with employees, greeting children, posing for photographs, and generally basking in good cheer. Amid so much poverty, there was an air of magic around Blankenship. Kids came up and thanked him for their toys while their parents stood back and watched, as if hoping that his good luck would rub off on their children. To many people in Madison, Blankenship was the local boy made good—a scrappy, slouching hillbilly who had climbed to the top of a tough industry and was now a bona fide millionaire. That's the American dream, West Virginia style.
Outside in the drizzling rain, Maria Gunnoe and her ten-year-old daughter waited in line to enter the party. Gunnoe was a thin, wiry thirty-six-year-old woman with long, dark, wavy hair and a habit of speaking her mind. She lived up-hollow in a little place called Bob White, a few miles south of Madison. Like most of the people at the event, she was from a coal mining family—her grandfather, father, and brothers all worked in the mines. Unlike nearly everyone else in line, Gunnoe was not a fan of Don Blankenship. In fact, she believed he was pretty much single-handedly responsible for destroying her beloved West Virginia.
Gunnoe came to her views the hard way. In the spring of 2003, Big Branch Creek, which ran only a few hundred feet from her house and was usually small enough to jump over, became a wall of black water roaring down out of the hollow. In the fifty years her family had lived in Bob White, nothing quite like that had ever happened before. Rocks the size of Volkswagens tumbled down the river. The force of the water yanked Rowdy, her rottweiler, right out of his collar and carried him off. Gunnoe dashed through waistdeep water to fetch her daughter at a neighbor's house, then carried her back through the rising current. She believed they would both drown. Somehow they made it through, and Gunnoe and her family spent the night huddled in her little house above the Big Branch, wondering if the water would wash them away.
Until that moment, Gunnoe had never quite grasped the consequences of the big new strip mines that had opened in the hills above her in 2001. She had heard the blasting and swerved out of the way when the coal trucks came barreling around the corner on one of the local roads. It was scary, but she'd dealt with it. Then the flooding began. In three years, Gunnoe was flooded six times. It was no mystery what was happening: as the mountains above her were disassembled, the rock and debris was dumped into the headwaters of creeks and streams, creating what the coal industry innocuously calls "valley fills." When it rained, the naked mountains guttered the water into the hollows. The filled-in headwaters of the creeks only accelerated the momentum of the runoff during storms, often turning a small, docile-looking creek like the Big Branch into a raging torrent. This was not a problem particular to Bob White. More than seven hundred miles of streams had been filled in throughout Appalachia, changing the natural drainage patterns and making catastrophic flooding a springtime ritual in the southern coalfields.
Even more dangerous, Gunnoe realized, were the big slurry impoundment ponds that are often built at mining sites—huge manmade lakes designed to store the runoff from coal washing, which are often filled with sludge containing high concentrations of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and selenium. In heavy rains, the earthen dams that hold these impoundments back sometimes fail, sending tidal waves of black, polluted water down over the people living in the hollows below.
The floods woke Gunnoe up to what was happening around her. It wasn't just the blasting of the mountains and the floods in the hollows, she realized. It was the destruction of a whole way of life. It was the fish that were gone from the streams, and the startling number of people she knew who had been diagnosed with cancer, and the kids with asthma, and the slurry impoundment ponds that leached chemicals into the drinking water. And most of all, it was the hopelessness and fear she sawall around her. Whenever she pulled up at a gas station in Boone County and saw a man with a particular look of sadness and desperation in his eyes, she wondered what coal company he worked for and whether more than one hundred years of taking orders from mine superintendents and coal barons had crushed something essential in West Virginia's soul.
Gunnoe knew that Don Blankenship was not responsible for all of this, that there were other coal companies in the hills above her, and they were in some ways just as bad. But to Gunnoe, no one embodied the lawlessness and power of Big Coal as much as Blankenship. Blankenship had made his name as a union buster and had done more than any other man to lower the wages and cut the benefits of miners in the state. Even by coal industry standards, his disregard for state and federal mining regulations was remarkable. Between 1995 and 2000, Massey Energy had been cited in 531 separate enforcement actions by state and federal agencies. The Martin County slurry spill in 2000, which had released 300 million gallons of sludge into Appalachian streams, had occurred at a Massey-operated impoundment in Inez, Kentucky. The spill covered seventy-five miles of the Big Sandy River with black sludge, killing 1.6 million fish, washing away roads and bridges, and contaminating the water systems of more than 27,000 people. Incredibly, no one had been killed. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called it the largest environmental catastrophe in the history of the southeastern United States.
Massey's safety practices were equally troubling. In July 2001, the United Mine Workers published a report that alleged Massey had "the nation's worst fatality record" among coal companies. Five workers had died at Massey mines in a ten-month period beginning in April 2000, the report charged. A few months later, an investigation commissioned by West Virginia's then governor Bob Wise concluded that Massey's safety record was confused by the company's extensive use of subcontractors at its mines. "Massey Energy has for several years publicly proclaimed that their accident record is among the lowest in the nation," the governor's report said. "However, if contractor accident data were included, it would be among the highest." Although Massey claims to have improved its safety practices lately, the deaths of two miners after a fire in Massey's Alma mine near Melville, West Virginia, in January 2006 demonstrated that the company still had a long way to go.
To Gunnoe, the fact that Blankenship was a local boy, and not a faceless corporate bean counter, made his crimes even harder to bear. It was one thing for an outsider to come into a place like West Virginia and cut up the mountains and exploit the people. It was quite another for a person who had been born and raised here to do it, and to be so shameless and disrespectful to his own kin that he thought they could be bought off with a few Christmas trinkets that he passed out once a year.
Standing in line that morning, Gunnoe felt the pull of conflicting emotions. Her fourteen-year-old son had refused to come, but her daughter, who was too young to understand the ethical complexities of the situation, had begged Gunnoe to bring her down to the Christmas Extravaganza for a free gift. And why not? Gunnoe was no better-off than most people in this line. Besides, she thought of the whole experience as a kind of guerrilla operation. She had printed up a couple of hundred flyers listing Massey's many sins and, with the help of a friend, left them on the seats of the shuttle buses that brought people to the event.
But the closer she got to the door, the more she began to feel that coming had been a mistake. Seeing Don Blankenship surrounded by children, cameras whirling—she knew the media, especially the local Fox station, would be playing up these images all through the holidays—"I started feeling physically ill:' she said later. If he really wanted to help the poor, he didn't need cameras. The kids were just props to him, she thought. She looked at his fine leather jacket, the posh bus outside, and the well-dressed minions hovering around him. This whole event, as far as Gunnoe was concerned, was nothing but a way to buff up Massey's reputation in front of the locals. Look, we gave your daughter a little plastic doll. We really care.
And the saddest thing of all, she thought, was that people were falling for it.