HUNTINGTON – A lightning rod for controversy, Don Blankenship never has been one to mince words.
The former chairman and CEO of Massey Energy has been in the headlines for most of his career, and usually not for running one of the largest coal companies in the nation.
Today, nearly four years after stepping down from Massey, Blankenship still has strong feelings about the energy industry, business in general, the state and federal governments, the environment, his legacy and his late friend Spike Maynard.
“I’ve been traveling some, enjoying my son’s racing career and managing my money,” the 64-year-old Blankenship said last week during an interview in the shadows of the memorial fountain on Marshall University’s campus. “I’ve started a few small businesses, and I might buy a few. I’ve done some coal consulting when friends in the industry have asked for my thoughts.
“But really, I’m just enjoying having less pressure and a less demanding schedule.”
He also occasionally writes essays that he posts on his website donblankenship.com, where he calls himself an “American competitionist.” Some of those essays occasionally will appear on the editorial page of The West Virginia Record.
He also keeps busy helping create documentaries. He said the next one will be out soon, lamenting the state of the American worker.
“I hope to have it out around Labor Day,” he said. “But the basic idea of the documentary is that Labor Day doesn't mean as much much anymore. There’s nothing for American labor to celebrate.”
Blankenship said he believes that is true on the national and state level.
“Take West Virginia, for example,” he said. “This shale gas development is a great opportunity. But West Virginia never has been good at taking advantage of opportunities given to it. We have failed to do so with chemicals and coal in the past, and I hope we don't fail again this time.
“And on a national level, the government continues to do more harm than good for workers. Coal is the perfect example.
“In the rest of the world, coal is revered as an energy source. Here, coal is the whipping boy.”
Blankenship places that blame directly on the shoulders of President Obama.
“One promise he did keep was to bankrupt coal,” he said. “He’s certainly done that. And the way they are doing it is just awful. They’re doing all of it without the proper processes. There is no consideration for the working families. Coal just continues to get beaten up.
“It takes a lot of taxes to do stupid things. That includes policing the world with troops in 120 countries and trying to change the temperature of the earth.
“Congress needs to stand up to the administration and fight for the rule of law, the process of law.”
Blankenship said the Environmental Protection Agency seems to have one agenda.
“The real cause behind all of this isn’t to protect the environment,” he said. “It’s to get rid of coal. Yet, the United States only uses 13 percent of coal in the world.
“The government is putting people on the streets out of their climate controlled homes in the name of protecting the environment. But realistically, how can changing what 4 percent of the world’s population does change the climate?”
Blankenship said it seems as if the EPA thinks its God.
“But God already has a system to control the climate,” he said. “There is a system for the sun to evaporate water, and for water to fall onto the ground. It’s done. Man can’t change that. All of these environmental changes are cyclical.”
Blankenship had more harsh words for the EPA.
“The EPA is the biggest polluter in the world,” he said. “Let me tell you how. The EPA causes more pollution than any entity on the planet by enacting nonsensical regulations that force companies to move overseas where, oftentimes, there are no pollution standards thereby increasing worldwide pollution.
“The EPA has spent billions of dollars to harm businesses and shut down businesses in the United States.”
On the state political scene, Blankenship said he has seen positive changes and hopes to see even more.
“We’re slowly seeing a change to a true two-party system in West Virginia,” he said. “I think I sort of planted the seed for that in 2004. That is a positive thing.”
In 2004, Blankenship contributed $3 million to a Political Action Committee called “And For The Sake Of The Kids” to unseat West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw. Brent Benjamin did defeat McGraw in the general election.
“I tried to show people in 2004 that you can stand up for something you believe in and survive,” Blankenship said. “It’s the same thing I did in 1985 by standing up to the unions. You can be a Republican in this state and not get burned.”
He said he thinks West Virginia could have something close to a 50-50 House of Delegates after this fall’s general election.
“I don’t know if it will happen, but I think it is very possible,” Blankenship said.
He also said the state Supreme Court has improved.
“The court isn’t as bad as it was with (Larry) Starcher and McGraw on it,” Blankenship said. “They weren’t judges, they were dictators.”
Despite these improvements he sees on the state level, Blankenship said West Virginia still faces an uphill battle.
“The state is better positioned now for the reality it’s going to face,” he said. “But sadly, the reality is so much worse today than it was even just a few years ago.
“No one wants to come to West Virginia. We need to move up on rankings for education, poverty and all of that. But even then, we can't continue to squander opportunities to attract businesses.
“And there won’t be as many jobs in West Virginia because it is impossible to create a job in the United States. You have to be incredibly brave to start a business now. The government has made it so difficult to do that.”
Blankenship said he doesn’t foresee getting into the political arena like he did in 2004 again.
“Now, the situation is that most politicians feel that I’m a negative,” he said. “They don’t want to have me associated with their campaign. I can’t change that.
“I always felt that if I could make a difference, that was more important than being applauded.
I don’t need my name on a stadium or a building. If someone comes to me and wants money for that, I’d rather use that money to make a difference, like I did with the food tax and the teachers’ bond issue.
“Those didn’t benefit me in any way. I buy my food in Kentucky, and I am not a teacher. They didn't directly matter to me, but I knew those were issues that needed to be fixed.”
Getting even more local, Blankenship said the ongoing corruption investigation in his native Mingo County is sad.
“There is corruption in every county and in every state,” he said. “But if everything they say is true, then it’s bad. Very bad. It’s bad for the state, the county and the judicial system.
“But still, the punishment needs to be handed out equally. For example, some workers at Massey were given harsher sentences for their bad judgment than the Mingo politicians were given for intentionally wronging citizens they were elected to protect.
"The West Virginia legal system, as a whole, is a horrible system. It’s conducive to corruption.
“People need to realize our legal system isn’t the only way to do things. There are other legal systems elsewhere in the world that work, too. There are other options.
“In some countries, there are business courts. West Virginia has started that, of course. And in some countries, if you bring a case against someone and you lose, you have to pay them the amount you sued them for.”
Blankenship said West Virginia and its legal system lost a great one earlier this year with the passing of his lifelong friend Spike Maynard.
Maynard, a former Mingo County prosecutor and circuit judge and state Supreme Court justice, died May 1.
“Spike was probably the best read, generally knowledgeable person I have ever known,” Blankenship said. “He was almost as good and as reliable as Google. He was honest, and he believed in the canons of law. He was incredibly personable.
“When he died, I think it’s horrible that so many people brought up the Monaco stuff again instead of honoring him for the man he was and for his service to our country and our state.”
Blankenship said Maynard should be remembered as a judge for being tough on crime and for being fair.
“Everyone knows he ruled against me and my company many times in courts. He also sent a childhood friend of mine to prison for five years,” Blankenship said. “He did what he thought was right when he was on the bench.
“When you have lifelong friends, you go through periods where you don’t talk as much as other times. Right before he died, we were talking again. He was feeling really good. He was engaged in life right before it suddenly ended. And that sudden end surprised him, too.”