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Appalachian coal country rejects Don Blankenship’s political ambitions

by Greg Klein | May 8, 2018

Audacious as it was, a disgraced former mining boss’ campaign for a U.S. Senate nomination fell to defeat on May 8. West Virginia Republican voters rebuffed Don Blankenship’s candidacy in the primary election.

Blankenship headed Massey Energy for a deadly decade which killed 54 of the company’s workers, 29 of them at the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia. Six years later a court sentenced the former CEO to one year in prison and a $250,000 fine for conspiracy to evade safety regulations.

Appalachian coal country rejects Don Blankenship’s political ambitions

Having spent millions of his own money on the primary,
Blankenship might consider a third-party candidacy in the
November election. (Photo: Blankenship campaign)

Despite that, Blankenship entered the Republican primary in the same state, at times presenting himself as an advocate for mine safety. As the contest progressed, some observers gave him odds of winning.

But although considered a strong contender as E-day opened, he trailed his two opponents until 9:50 p.m. local time, when CNN projected his defeat. Less than half an hour later Blankenship conceded.

During the campaign he denied his criminal conviction was related to Upper Big Branch, or that he had even been convicted of a crime. Blankenship claimed he’d been convicted simply of not preventing others from committing crimes. He also alleged a cover-up of government regulations that endangered miners: “The truth is that [the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration] cut the mine’s airflow, the mine exploded and Obama’s friends, staff and appointed judges covered up the truth.”

In September Blankenship’s tactics provoked an angry response from Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers of America, who said: “The facts are clear: 54 people were killed on Massey Energy property while Don Blankenship ruled that company with an iron fist, 29 of them in the Upper Big Branch mine on April 5, 2010. Don Blankenship was convicted of establishing a scheme to circumvent federal mine safety and health law, thereby putting Massey workers at enhanced risk. The fact that he only served a year in prison remains one of the greatest travesties of justice that I have witnessed.”

Blankenship also charged that incumbent state Democratic Senator Joe Manchin “has blood on his hands,” having “failed to successfully advocate for effective mine safety regulations even as over 270 American miners have been fatally injured since the 2010 UBB tragedy.”

The fact that he only served a year in prison remains one of the greatest travesties of justice that I have witnessed.—Cecil Roberts,
United Mine Workers of America

Blankenship’s other controversial tactics included allegations that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, repeatedly used her position to promote her rich father’s shipping interests. He also hinted that McConnell’s family has drug trade connections and that primary contestant and West Virginia attorney general Patrick Morrisey contributed to the opioid crisis through his links to the pharmaceutical industry.

Two days before the vote, Blankenship told CBS he might run as a third-party candidate in the November election if Morrisey wins the primary. At press time Morrisey was projected to win.

Blankenship largely funded his own campaign with—so far—untold millions. Not even Blankenship knows how much, he told CNN. Morrisey said his staff would complain about Blankenship’s lack of spending disclosures to the convict’s probation officer.

Novelist John Grisham named Blankenship as the inspiration for The Appeal, a 2008 portrayal of a ruthless billionaire who finances and grooms the career of a friendly Supreme Court judge. Blankenship had reportedly donated millions to politicians and judges, including $3 million to a West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals judge “who helped overturn a $50-million jury award against some of Massey’s units.” Grisham later wrote Gray Mountain, a damning account of the Appalachian coal industry.

A year following Blankenship’s 2010 retirement from Massey, Alpha Natural Resources bought the company for $7.1 billion, later paying another $209 million for fines, restitution and mine safety improvements, $265 million to settle a securities class action suit, and undisclosed amounts to families of the 29 Upper Big Branch victims.

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