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Coal River

Coal River Michael Schnayerson Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pp., $25
Book CoverThe summer before Don Blankenship spent $3.5 million of his personal fortune to unseat a particular West Virginia Supreme Court judge, he threw a big party for his 5,000 employees. Blankenship is the CEO of Massey Energy, the largest coal company in West Virginia and the fourth-largest in the United States. He hosts a company picnic every summer, and at the 2004 outing, everyone received a ticket good for one club sandwich or one peanut butter and jelly sandwich. They also got an earful from Blankenship himself.

"If you are against coal, you are against West Virginia and America," he told them. "There's more global warming caused by the hot air coming out of the mouths of environmental extremists than there is from burning American coal." According to Michael Shnayerson, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and the author of Coal River, the picnickers dutifully applauded. Shnayerson wasn't at the picnic, but he found the transcript of Blankenship's speech on Massey's Web site, and he talked to people who had been there.

Blankenship then went on to lambaste West Virginia Supreme Court judge Warren McGraw, a widely respected man who had shown little fear when it came to handing down guilty verdicts against the state's all-powerful coal industry. If reelected, McGraw would be hearing arguments in a $50 million breach of contract case filed against Massey Energy by a company that Blankenship had squeezed out of business.

Blankenship urged his employees to vote against McGraw, a man responsible for "the type of decisions that allow uninjured and healthy individuals to receive workers' compensation benefits." This time, Shnayerson writes, "their applause, when he finished, was more out of relief than anything else."

In a coal state long known as a union stronghold, Blankenship had whittled the number of unionized workers at Massey Energy down to just 3 percent. The rest knew that if they were hurt and unable to work, they would be out of a job with little hope of receiving meaningful compensation.

Blankenship would go on to do more than talk. He set up a political action group called And for the Sake of the Kids, which pumped millions into a campaign to support McGraw's opponent. McGraw, a Democrat, lost the election. It was the first time a Republican challenger had been elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court since 1928.

Massey Energy owns a third of Appalachia's coal-producing region. To get at that booty, the company shears off the tops of mountains through a process crudely called mountaintop-removal mining. Reduced to rubble, the mountains are then dumped, often illegally and in plain sight, into streams that sustain people whose families have lived in these mountains for centuries.

Shnayerson is not the first author to recount this American scandal. But he brings it alive through characters -- good and bad -- who play a role in the story of industry and government indifference toward coal workers and the Appalachian people. His story unfolds through courtroom battles waged by determined public interest lawyers and the families who suffer at the hands of King Coal, but it doesn't end with the book.

The ultimate fate of our purple mountain majesties has yet to be determined. Shnayerson leaves us, in his final chapter, to ponder whether presidents in years gone by would have allowed mountaintop mining to go on at all; whether, under different circumstances, the law would prevail. Something to consider, perhaps, the next time you enter a voting booth.

Related Tags: West Virginia, coal, energy, dirty coal
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Brooklyn-based journalist Laura Wright Treadway is a contributing editor to OnEarth and a former senior editor at the magazine. With degrees in environmental science and geology, as well as stints at Scientific American and Discover, she's also our f... READ MORE >