With a protester surrounded by signs that read “Massey Energy kills miners and mountains,” “Blankenship busts unions, destroys mountains, and maims miners,” positioned outside the National Press Club in downtown Washington, as well as three protesters who crashed Thursday’s luncheon with Chief Executive Officer of Massey Energy Company Don L. Blankenship, the moderator’s opening remarks that the audience conduct itself in a respectful mannerappeared prescient. So much so, that Blankenship opened by thanking the moderator for the caution.
Blankenship, who made repeated mention of his roots and his ability to identify with the needs and lifestyle of central Appalachia throughout his opening remarks and during the question-and-answer session, wasn’t in Washington to talk about safety. He was there, just as the Senate gave up on climate legislation, to talk about why expanding coal surface mining was essential for the US economy and global world health. According to Massey, surface mining offers multiple benefits that should balance out what he called “environmental extremism” with “reasonable environmentalism” that balances green ideology with market needs.
Among the benefits Blankenship identified: providing Americans with jobs and providing low-cost, affordable fuel. With respect to the latter, Massey explained that low-cost fuel helps improve the quality of life, which can in turn extend longevity. Keen to parry environmental objections before they were voiced, he downplayed the danger in his company’s mines as well as the environmental impact by drawing comparisons with life in mining communities and urban settings. “It’s more dangerous to drive a taxi cab in New York or work in a 7-11” than it its to work in a coal mine, he said, as well as noted that much of the staff at Massey are related to miners. This connection, he indicated, further bolstered the company’s commitment to safety. On the environmental front, Blankenship said coal “is about 70% cleaner than it was 20 to 30 years ago” and dismissed worries that surface mines permanently scar the landscape. “In 20 to 25 years I doubt that you’ll find the site of the surface mine,” he said.
The formal question-and-answer session, which consisted of written queries handed to Blankenship, nudged at issues such as Massey’s relationship with unions (he said Massey doesn’t have unions because their workers feel cared for), as well as comparisons with BP (“you need to go with safety and fact” he said was among the lessons learned).
These broad questions, however, belied the concerns of people, such as JW Randolph, a legislative associate with the Appalachian Voices, who brought a sample of the mining industry’s impact: a jar of tap water from a home in Mingo County, West Virginia, that looked like liquid rescued from a mud puddle. According to Randolph, the water is from one of the most-strip mined counties in the United States. “We want every American to see … that Massey Energy creates dangerous communities for anybody living in Appalachia,” Randolph said in an email.
The question-and-answer format, however, did not allow the Washington-based Randolph an Erin Brockovich confrontation, or even a conversation about how the mining industry affects communities other than by offering employment and cheap fuel.