The National Press Club was Wrong to Invite Don Blankenship to Speak

Posted: Dec 17, 2017
Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy Company, may have the right to vent his anti-environment, anti-government rhetoric at any venue that is willing to have him.  What I cannot fathom is why the National Press Club would offer this man a platform to speak.  He certainly has done nothing to earn this privilege.  Blankenship lacks even a modicum of credibility and his abysmal record of citizenship puts him in a league all his own. The list of particulars against Mr. Blankenship is long and sordid.  We know him best perhaps because of the recent disaster at the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine, where methane exploded and killed 29 miners.  Although still all too common in some developing countries, mine explosions had become a rarity in the United States because we know how to prevent them.  We are pretty good at ventilating mines and detecting methane build-up when it still occurs, and so we are quite capable of keeping miners safe.  Our record of preventing methane explosions at underground coal mines over the past several decades testifies to our success.  That it didn’t happen at the Upper Big Branch Mine is a testament to Blankenship and his willingness to sacrifice the health and safety of his employees for the sake of his company’s profits. 
At his National Press Club speech, Blankenship tried to shift fault for the accident from himself and his company to the federal regulators.  The government surely should have been more vigilant.  In the five years preceding the accident, the Upper Big Branch Mine had racked up well over 1,300 safety violations.  Given this record, it is fair to ask whether the federal government should have moved more aggressively against the operator.  But the idea that Blankenship and the anti-regulatory culture that he fostered within his workforce were not fundamentally responsible for what happened is as shameless as it is mendacious.   One hopes that the federal government will now do a better job of holding Blankenship to account, personally and perhaps criminally, for his role in this tragedy.
As horrific as the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster was, one might be more willing to accept Blankenship’s efforts to deflect criticism away from himself if this were an isolated incident.  On the contrary, however, the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster is part of a pattern that reveals Blankenship to be a mean-spirited person who cares only for the well-being of himself and his company.  This is a guy who time and again skirted labor laws by buying out union mines, shutting them down, only to reopen them soon thereafter as non-union mines that refused to employ workers who were previously members of the union.  (This short-sighted behavior is at least partially responsible for the lack of skilled workers at places like Upper Big Branch.) 
This is a guy who has bullied West Virginia officials for years into approving his plans to lop off mountain tops and plunder the West Virginia landscape.  Mountain top mining is, of course, allowed, under the federal mining laws.  But it was plainly intended to be allowed only in exceptional circumstances and then only when it could be done in full compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.  Thanks largely to Blankenship, and the other mining companies trying to emulate and compete with Massey, mountaintop mining has pretty much become the rule in West Virginia.  In the process, hundreds of miles of mountain streams have been buried under the rubble of West Virginia’s mountain tops, in shocking disregard of the requirements of the Clean Water Act.
Finally, this is a guy who spent millions of dollars to defeat an incumbent judge on the West Virginia Supreme Court and have his own candidate installed in order to prevail in a bitter dispute with a rival company.  This was even too much for the U.S. Supreme Court, which demanded that Blankeneship’s judge recuse himself from the relevant case. 
Long before the tragic events at the Upper Big Branch Mine, Michael Schnayerson wrote a terrific book called Coal River, which describes in detail the many sins against humanity visited upon our world by Don Blankenship and Massey Energy.  It is well worth a read.  But you don’t need to know the details to know that what the National Press Club did in inviting Blankenship to speak was wrong.  The National Press Club serves as an important forum for debating public policy and it rightly solicits a range of views and perspectives in carrying out its mission.  But the civic-minded behavior – or the lack thereof – of any prospective speaker should surely be part of the calculus in any decision to extend an invitation.   Someone seems to have forgotten this when they invited Don Blankenship to the Club.
- Mark Squillace
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