“In person, Donald Blankenship can be surprisingly
underwhelming. When I first met him at the Richmond,
Virginia headquarters of Massey Energy in
the fall of 2002, he fixed his brown eyes on me as I asked my questions and
made my pitch to visit one of his coal mines with a photographer.
"His eyes were
steady and unblinking, almost expressionless. Deep fleshy jowls and his square
face gave him the appearance of an oversized basset hound. He answered my
questions in a few, carefully chosen words, as if to reveal only enough to keep
our meeting moving along.” (Excerpt: Chapter 2, page 32)
That’s author Peter A. Galuszka reading from his book Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and
the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.
In it, Galuszka weaves together a narrative about his formative years in
West Virginia, the disaster at
Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, his interactions with miners, coal
executives and the complexities of their effect upon one another.
Among the various central characters of
Galuszka’s book is former Massey CEO, Don Blankenship. The author describes
interacting with his notorious subject years before the Upper Big Branch Mine
“I went to see Blankenship in this sort of dark and
foreboding building in downtown Richmond. He was very hard to read. He was very nondescript. He stared at me—he looked at me—but he was
not in any way rude. He was quite
polite. He was not animated.
"Frankly, I used to work for BusinessWeek and I’ve talked with many
CEO’s and some of them are very forceful people. He did not in an interview ever
come across as forceful, but he did do what I asked him to do, which was to go
visit one of his mines,” said Galuszka.
Like virtually every aspect of coal mining in West
Virginia, Galuszka points out that Blankenship’s
character is also complex. Despite being
known for his cut-throat business practices and hard-nosed public persona,
Blankenship has gone to great lengths to help those in his hometown’s
community. But even those helpful
actions, he says are complicated and perplexing in some ways.
“I wanted to be fair to him as much as I could. This movie Matewan from about 20 some years
ago—John Sayles movie—that had to do with the 1920-21 episodes of violence
there involving unions. I just thought it was just a great way to look at
Blankenship who is so notoriously anti-union that he would actually support the
historic restoration of his hometown that was noteworthy for this extremely
important labor action.
apparently, according to some of the people there, really did help people
there. If a little league field needed
repairing he would help. He gave out
turkeys on Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is a museum there to commemorate
the area’s history and he contributed a great deal to that. That’s his
hometown, so I was trying to get at the complicated nature of him in the way
that anyone would be. Any person good or
bad is complicated.”
Having lived in Harrison County,
W.Va. as a young boy and returning
to investigate the coal industry as a journalist later in life, Galuszka says
that the most important observation in his book is how complexities such as
Blankenship have effected the people of West Virginia.
While some in the area have benefited from the coal industry in a lot of ways, they
have also endured many hardships because of it.
“The take away that I had from the book was that, here I was
a 9 year-old boy coming to West Virginia to live for several years and then I
go back and I find that in some ways it hasn’t really changed very much. Despite the internet, despite computers,
despite everything, the culture—a lot of things—just haven’t changed.
"I just found that personally intriguing. I tried to look at it from many different
aspects—social, political, and economic—about why that is so.”
Peter A. Galuszka, author of Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind
Big Coal, is published by St.