COAL

Blankenship opens wallet to clear his name, rattle Manchin

How does Senator Don Blankenship sound to you?

In May, the former Massey Energy Co. CEO finished serving his one-year prison sentence for a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety laws in connection with the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed 29 West Virginia miners.

Investigators and prosecutors blamed Blankenship for the mine disaster, saying he put profits ahead of safety. But he insists he is innocent.

"It doesn't matter how many times somebody tells a lie, nor how many different people tell that lie, or for how long they maintain that lie — if it is a lie, it is a lie," Blankenship said in a recent telephone interview. "And that's what all of you are missing."

Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided not to take up his appeal, but Blankenship — once coal's highest-paid CEO — said he has enough cash to tell West Virginians his side of the story, maybe during a run next year for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's seat.

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"My focus has and will remain on exposing Obama's deadliest cover up. Twenty-nine Americans died because of the government," Blankenship wrote on his website after the decision, attacking Manchin as a "man who believes in declaring Americans guilty before their trial."

Blankenship has never shied away from spending big on politics. He opened his wallet over decades to help Republicans turn once-blue West Virginia into a red state, and now he plans another spending blitz.

"I probably won't disclose how much I am going to spend," he said, "but I'm going to spend whatever it takes."

In August, Blankenship started buying airtime on West Virginia television for ads that outline his Upper Big Branch theory and call on Manchin to "tell the truth" about the catastrophe, which happened when Manchin was West Virginia's governor.

The new campaign, "For the Sake of Coal Miners," recalls "And for the Sake of the Kids," the group Blankenship bankrolled in 2004 to unseat West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw. He spent more than $3 million to elect Republican attorney Brent Benjamin, who cast the deciding vote in 2005 to scrap a $50 million judgment against Blankenship's Massey Energy. The resulting furor helped inspire the plot of John Grisham's novel "The Appeal."

The campaign has stoked talk about Blankenship entering the Senate race. Manchin faces a Democratic primary challenge from activist Paula Jean Swearengin. On the Republican side, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are the best-known candidates in a field of five.

Said Blankenship: "I haven't decided whether I'm going to run or not."

But he's conducted a poll to test the waters.

"When you poll, you never know for sure whether you're getting the truth, so I don't know whether I could do it or not," he said.

Blankenship believes he could carry southern West Virginia, where he was born and raised, but admits he would struggle in the northern half of the state, blaming biased media coverage.

Kentucky attorney and mine safety expert Tony Oppegard doesn't doubt Blankenship has support in places where his company's paychecks are now missed.

"He's got more money than God," Oppegard said, "so you're always going to have people sucking up to you."

Manchin shrugged off Blankenship's attacks, telling E&E News the former coal executive should respect the rule of law and stop dredging up the still-raw emotions of the victim's families.

"I guess Don is having a hard time looking at himself, looking in the mirror," Manchin said.

Said Blankenship, "Anybody who's not telling the truth wishes the truth would go away."

No matter what, he said, all the candidates will have to deal with his ads.

"These guys are going to tell the truth at some point," he said.

'Far worse than Benghazi'

Blankenship maintains that the Upper Big Branch blast was caused by natural gas, not a methane ignition fueled by coal dust.

"That area of West Virginia continues to have natural gas inundations that endanger the coal miners, and at some point, the truth's got to be told if we're to have any chance of it not happening again," he said.

The mine's ventilation system could have helped, but Blankenship contends federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors ordered the air flow in the mine to be cut in half the day before the explosion. He compares the mine disaster with Islamic militants' 2012 attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service information management officer Sean Smith.

"It's far worse than Benghazi. At Benghazi, mistakes were made and Americans died," he said, echoing his most recent ad. "Here, the mistakes were made by the government itself, and the coal miners died, and they just lied about it and nobody cares."

But Davitt McAteer, a Clinton-era MSHA chief who led an independent investigative panel for then-Gov. Manchin, said science doesn't support Blankenship's claim.

The McAteer group's report identified not only a history of methane inundations at Upper Big Branch but 64 violations pertaining to the ventilation system just in 2009.

Still, the report said, the ignition could have been contained had Massey properly controlled rock dust and maintained water sprayers. Instead, a massive blast spread miles through the mine.

The United Mine Workers of America produced its own report condemning Blankenship for 54 total deaths during his time at Massey.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts said Blankenship's insistence on pushing his "whack-job theory" only reopens the wounds suffered by the families of the victims.

"Although Don Blankenship may not have received the proper punishment in this world, those families can rest assured that he will receive it in the next," Roberts said.

Blankenship dismissed the McAteer, UMWA and MSHA reports as "neither independent nor responsible."

"They are all supporters and fans of one another," he said. "They all supported President Obama for election, and all their reports supported Obama's declaration made prior to any UBB [Upper Big Branch] investigation that management was at fault."

Blankenship defended his safety record, including a number of technological innovations like the continuous miner proximity device and adopting now-standard reflective miners' clothing.

He said he is pressing for MSHA to focus more on technology to make mines safer.

"Our answer was always technology; their answer was always to blame the miner and explain how the miner could have done it better," Blankenship said.

McAteer conceded that Blankenship had done innovative things, but wrote in the report: "Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris."

"To his discredit," McAteer said, Blankenship "has disregarded the very fundamental and very basic safety precautions that keep people alive."

'Meaningful adversary'

Blankenship blamed his conviction on a conspiracy of Democrats. The Obama administration, Manchin and McAteer didn't let "a good crisis go to waste," he said, quoting former the former Obama White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

"I'm not hated by the union or the liberal side of the government or the press because I do things incorrectly," he said. "I'm hated because I've been a meaningful adversary of theirs."

Blankenship was backing Republicans long before the GOP finally retook the West Virginia Legislature in 2014 after eight decades.

He also took credit for taking on UMWA, which has seen its influence dwindle in the region as the mining workforce has contracted (Greenwire, April 11).

Blankenship pointed to the 1984-85 strike at Massey subsidiary Rawls Sales and Processing as a turning point in West Virginia politics. As the company's young leader, Blankenship broke the strike by hiring non-union workers. He spent the next decade buying up union coal mines, closing them and reopening them as non-union mines.

He was already pushing to make West Virginia a right-to-work state — prohibiting companies from requiring their employees to pay union dues as a condition of employment. In 2016, the Legislature passed right-to-work, and this month, the West Virginia Supreme Court overruled a lower judge who blocked implementation of the law.

"It took me a long time to get there, but we finally got there," Blankenship said.

His work paved the way for Donald Trump's landslide victory in West Virginia last year, but Blankenship said he didn't put much stock in Trump — who he derided as "an Archie Bunker with a billion dollars" — reviving the coal industry.

"It clearly shows he doesn't realize what's involved in getting coal to come back, but it was a great message to win West Virginia and Kentucky," he said.

While Blankenship maintains that his conviction was political, former MSHA chief McAteer said it only marked a shift from the politics that allowed the coal industry to rule West Virginia.

"Mine operators are no longer exempt from a look at the criminal side," McAteer said. "He's back in the 1950s where nobody was touchable."

While some see the pro-coal Trump White House giving Blankenship another chance to clear his name over the Upper Big Branch catastrophe, David Zatezalo, Trump's nominee to lead MSHA, said, "Absent any new evidence, I don't see any reason why it should be reopened."

Blankenship, meanwhile, said he has never had faith in governments or courts, not since gasoline taxes put his mother's gas station on the West Virginia-Kentucky line out business. His time in prison, he said, only reinforced his notion that the law bends to corporate and political interests.

"If I hadn't had millions of dollars," he said, "they would have put me in prison for life."

Twitter: @DylanBrown26 Email: dbrown@eenews.net

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