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Book shows complex character of ex-Massey chief Blankenship

By Dave Mistich

West Virginia Public Broadcasting

CHARLESTON -- Author Peter A. Galuszka reveals how complex Don Blankenship can be in "Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal."

"In person, Donald Blankenship can be surprisingly underwhelming," Galuszka says in the book. "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."

In the book, 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 Blankenship, the former Massey CEO. The author describes interacting with his notorious subject years before the Upper Big Branch disaster.

"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 CEOs 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 cutthroat 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," Galuszka says. "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.

"He did 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 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 affected 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," Galuszka says.

"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."

"Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal," is published by St. Martin's Press.


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