In the course of making the film “Dirty Business: ‘Clean Coal’ and the Battle for Our Energy Future,” the holy grail for us was getting an interview with the infamous Don Blankenship, then the CEO of the Massey Energy Co.
Blankenship – the epitome of the coal baron – was notorious as a union buster, violator of mine safety rules* and head of a company responsible for the lion’s share of mountaintop removal mining that is polluting West Virginia and Kentucky waterways and turning huge swaths of Appalachia into ruined lunar landscapes.
*At the time I interviewed him, it would be another two years before the 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 of Blankenship’s workers, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. On Wednesday, Blankenship was sentenced to one year in prison for his role in the safety violations that led to the explosion.
It seemed extremely unlikely that King Coal would respond – let alone agree– to a request to be interviewed for a film about coal being produced for The Center for Investigative Reporting. To our knowledge, Blankenship hadn’t agreed to be interviewed for a documentary for years.
But to our shock – and glee – we get word back from Massey’s PR department with a time and date for an interview with the big boss. (Pointedly, we hadn’t told Blankenship’s people he’d be interviewed by Jeff Goodell, a Rolling Stone reporter and our collaborator on the film; if we’d done that, we knew we’d never get in the door. I was going to do the interview myself, knowing they’d never heard of me.) Evidently, our ploy worked.
Our small crew arrives at Massey HQ; we set up lights and a single camera in his office, and finally he walks in. He’s gruff, humorless and businesslike – and clearly has not the slightest idea of who we are or what we’re up to.
I start the interview slowly, asking about the company’s history and mining techniques, then start homing in on the subject of mountaintop removal mining and its impact on the environment, and he’s getting increasingly testy.
Finally, after a series of more confrontational questions, he’s getting annoyed. I ask him if he really dismisses the scientific evidence of climate change and coal’s contribution. He says he isn’t a scientist and doesn’t pretend to be one, but only the “elite in Washington can concern itself with theories when we see the … high cost of energy that’s causing American families to lose their homes.”
When I ask him what happened to the prosperity the coal industry was supposed to bring to West Virginia, he replies that he’d “hate to see what this area would be like without coal.”
I push a little closer to home, pointing out that his company agreed to pay $20 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act – the largest civil fine paid by a coal company for pollution issues. Would he comment on that? This generates my favorite reply, included in the film: “A successful coal company is considered to be bad regardless of what kind of job they do, because people who believe in climate change or who are somehow benefiting from the environmental movement will say almost anything to promote their own jobs.”
He responds pretty diplomatically to what would be my last question, about the degree to which he’s used his wealth to buy political influence, alluding to his success in removing a judge who’d ruled against his company. He replies, “We’re not going to have a prosperous West Virginia … so long as we … are making huge punitive awards against companies that are trying to provide jobs.”
But he’s clearly had enough. He abruptly leaves the room – a sequence we play under the credits of the film – and before the assistant comes in to tell us he’s pulled the plug on the interview, we hear him berating the PR guy: “Who the hell are these people? Didn’t you check them out beforehand?”
We had our holy grail of an interview – but I’m not sure that PR guy had a job for much longer.
Peter Bull is the director of “Dirty Business: ‘Clean Coal’ and the Battle for Our Energy Future,” a film produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting.