Author Talks: An epic legal battle for clean water in Appalachia

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Gwyn Herbein chats with Kris Maher, a staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal. In his book, Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia (Simon & Schuster, October 2021), Maher chronicles the story of one determined lawyer who confronts a coal industry giant in a battle over clean drinking water for a West Virginia community. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Kris Maher
Author Kris Maher
Kris Maher

What made you decide to write this book?

I was reporting in 2010 on Massey Energy, the coal company, and the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster happened in April 2010. I was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal here in Pittsburgh. That whole accident really got me involved in reporting on Massey and reporting in West Virginia. I went down there for the accident in April, where 29 miners died in that accident.

I was there with national and international media kind of during this vigil to see if any of the miners had survived. I remember one day I was on a phone call with somebody about an environmental case situation in West Virginia, and at the end of the call, he said, “You know, you’re reporting on Massey. You should check out this lawsuit down in Mingo County. There’s a lawyer down there. He’s suing on behalf of about 700 people for a water contamination case.”

It piqued my interest right away. So I drove down to Mingo County, which is about 90 miles south of Charleston, West Virginia, right on the border with Kentucky. I met this environmental lawyer, Kevin Thompson, who was working out of the Mountaineer Hotel in Williamson, and he had this just kind of crazy makeshift office with wood paneling, and a Dark Side of the Moon poster on the wall, and all kinds of mine maps, and things.

He captivated me by telling me the whole story of the lawsuit. And one thing that really got me in that moment was he was sitting back in his desk, pointed through the window across from his desk, and he said, “You see those lights on the top of the mountain? That’s Don Blankenship’s house.”

So when the lights were on, he said, “He might be there entertaining people.” It was this corporate retreat on top of the mountain. Something about that juxtaposition of this lawyer working out of this old hotel against this company, Massey Energy, which was the biggest coal company in Appalachia. Kevin Thompson at the time told me about his clients and the water they’ve been living with.

I eventually met [these clients]. They told me they had this black water—this toxic water—coming right out of their taps in their kitchens and bathtubs. It was remarkable that they had lived with it for years, beginning in the 1980s for some people. Then in the early 2000s, they met Kevin Thompson, and he sued the company in 2004. It was just a combination really of these compelling figures: Kevin Thompson, the lawyer; Don Blankenship, the CEO. In the middle of that you had hundreds of people.

They told me they had this black water—this toxic water—coming right out of their taps in their kitchens and bathtubs. It was remarkable that they had lived with it for years, beginning in the 1980s for some people.

I really got to meet dozens of them and heard their stories of what they’d lived through with their water, not only having their house smell of hydrogen sulfide and having their kids get rashes, and people getting kidney stones and cancer, but also their whole lives really being upended by this for years and years.

Was there anything through the research and writing process that surprised you?

I think what surprised me most of all perhaps was just how hard it is to write a book. I have been a reporter for the Wall Street Journal since 2005 here in Pittsburgh. Just conceiving of a book-length project was a really difficult task for me, to be totally honest.

[It was also difficult] to think about structuring a story that will hopefully pull the reader along, and be gripping and interesting. It’s seven years of litigation involving 700 clients. You’ve got Kevin Thompson on one side with all the people he worked with various lawyers and his staff working out of that hotel.

On the other side, you’ve got Don Blankenship and Massey Energy. I really wanted to tell more of the corporate story and also more of Don Blankenship’s life. I wanted to profile Kevin Thompson and Don Blankenship. Right from the beginning, I did not want this story to be about a good guy versus a bad guy.

The people who Kevin Thompson represented had very complicated feelings about him by the end of the story because of how things turned out, despite everything that he had put into the case to the point of going basically personally bankrupt several times and feeling like he was risking his marriage and his finances and even his health at some point.

But the people also had very complex feelings about Don Blankenship, the CEO of Massey Energy. Even people who had blamed him for their water being contaminated still had some positive things to say about him and his commitment to Mingo County and the area. It was that kind of complexity that I really wanted to bring out in this story.

How did you take care of yourself emotionally while also putting that emotion into the book?

It goes to the question of how close do you become to the people you’re writing about. I spent many hours with people in their kitchens and on their porches and talking to them and hearing their entire life stories in some cases. It would get very emotional when they spoke about how the water had affected them, particularly their health.

It’s something I saw with Kevin Thompson and the people too. He almost became a member of people’s family, like an extended member. He could come over their house anytime, use the phone, get some food, a dinner, especially when he was running out of money.

There’s a man named James Berlin Anderson. He was a coal miner. He had grown up in the water, which was the expression people used when they were kids and they would get these sores and things that they just thought were expected. I went to interview him another time around 2017. I drove up and I saw him on the porch, and he just looked gray. He looked ashen. He told me that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, and he had a few months to live, but we ended up talking that whole afternoon, and it was a good day for him. He was really in good spirits, and he wasn’t feeling much pain.

He told me a lot about his life, about how he was prepared to die, and how he had picked out his coffin, which he described as a Cadillac. Telling the story, receiving someone’s story, is so cathartic and healing that I’m just grateful for those interactions.

He told me a lot about his life, about how he was prepared to die, and how he had picked out his coffin, which he described as a Cadillac.

Who are your heroes, personally and professionally?

I would say my heroes in this story are the people who persevered for years. They went through this lawsuit for seven years to try to get clean drinking water and to try to win some justice against the coal company. For everything they went through and for never giving up, I really admire that in them.

I’m drawn to write about fascinating characters, and I found them in Kevin Thompson and Don Blankenship, both. It’s interesting that each of them would be considered heroes by some people. It’s interesting our perception and what we think of as a hero, or an antihero, or an imperfect hero.

I did have the opportunity to spend time with Don Blankenship, too, and drive through his hometown where he grew up, and go to his house, which is right in these communities that had had the contaminated water. It was fascinating to see people come up to him and thank him directly for the jobs they’d had for years.

My heroes, my literary heroes, probably too many to name. I do admire a lot of people and try to emulate them. People like Susan Orlean, who have such a distinctive voice. Michael Lewis, he’s another favorite of mine. People who are just great storytellers.

What lessons might executives and companies take away from your book?

I really did want to look at this history of Massey Energy. I ended up talking to E. Morgan Massey, the grandson of the founder. I wanted to show that whole arc of this company that had started out really small in Virginia and then became this multibillion-dollar coal company, one of the biggest in the country.

There seemed to be this disconnect between the executives at the company—people with degrees in engineering who spent hours coming up with plans—who are I think perfectly well meaning, and wanting to extract coal and sell it in a safe and responsible way. To do this thing safely, they hired consulting companies. There was a disconnect between those ambitions and what happens on the ground when it actually comes to taking the coal out, cleaning the coal, and trying to store it, and what happens when you’re working under pressure to produce thousands of tons of coal and process them, and ship them.

There’s also the culture that develops at the company. It was fascinating that when E. Morgan Massey and the family were running Massey Energy, they had one style of management. It was very decentralized. E. Morgan Massey ran the company. He gave the heads of all the subsidiaries extensive control over their group of companies, usually a collection of mines, a processing plant, and their transportation. When Don Blankenship came along, he succeeded by doing the opposite. He succeeded by being extremely hands on, micromanaging, not listening to management in some very key moments, and being such an effective manager in terms of production and eventually profitability.

One thing that was fascinating to me, too, about this whole dynamic between Kevin Thompson, the environmental lawyer, and Don Blankenship, the coal CEO, was that Kevin actually admired things. Even though he had been put through so much through his lawsuit against Massey, gone bankrupt several times, and had been struggling for seven years, he admired Blankenship’s long-term focus, not always meeting a quarterly goal, and also his dedication to the region.

Don Blankenship didn’t move to Richmond, or St. Louis, or somewhere else. He lived right in the communities. He would just hop on a helicopter to go visit a mine, sometimes on the weekends. Creating the culture is definitely a double-edged sword.

What gives you hope?

I think what gives me hope about this story is that the people did persevere for seven years, and they did win a measure of justice. They went through an awful lot. Not only are they fighting the biggest coal company in Appalachia, in the coalfields of West Virginia, in the home county of Don Blankenship, but they’re also doing so in a court system that has been criticized for being corrupt.

In this book, I really try to get into the history of the county and the history of coal mining. When I take that longer view and I see what people struggled against in the late 19th century and early 20th century. I try to talk about how that was an economic struggle as well because the railroad and coal mining and industrialization were all coming at that time. So that was sort of a fight over capital.

In the 1920s, you had a fight over labor, when the union was trying to organize right in this same area. During this fight, it’s over people’s health and the environment. So there are these cycles of struggle between the people living there and the industry. And I think in this case they really were able to be heard through the judicial system. My hope is that through writing this book they’re going to be heard, again, even more widely.

The people actually refer to themselves as the forgotten communities. They were not able to get help from the state, the company, or local officials. Then they hired Kevin Thompson, the environmental lawyer. Eventually they did get clean drinking water, which is by far the greatest success that they got, from what people tell me.

Did it seem like the playing field was slanted one way?

Was the court system slanted one way or the other? Did they get a fair shake with the judge? The thing that’s really interesting to me about that is that Kevin Thompson, the lawyer, he always had faith in the judge in Mingo County.

He always believed the judge was sort of on his side in a way. The judge was ruling in favor of Kevin and his clients. But then it seemed that the judge—and this is all Kevin’s perspective—had changed. He seemed to be making different kinds of rulings. Kevin faced the choice about whether or not he should recuse the judge.

Some people, through my reporting, said that things were slanted against them. They thought in the end the judge would side with the coal company because that’s been their experience. The people were not satisfied with how the case played out. One thing about that is that everyone wanted their story to be told. They wanted their story to be told in an open courtroom and to let a jury decide.

People were getting older and older, and it was clear that some people simply might not live long enough to see the end of that process. So that’s also a moving part of the story when that is sort of taken away from the people, the chance to be in a courtroom.

Some people’s willingness to talk to me was so that the story could be told. It didn’t make it to a jury, where it would’ve been reported on in the news in the state, and it would have been aired openly. This book hopefully is an opportunity for that to happen, for their stories to be told more fully.

Watch the full interview

Author Talks

Visit Author Talks to see the full series.

Explore a career with us