feat. Kris Maher | The Wall Street Journal‘s Kris Maher joins Joanna Doven to talk about his book and to provide insight into the mind of a crisis reporter.


To launch On Crisis Season 2, host Joanna Doven sat down with Kris Maher of The Wall Street Journal, one of the nation’s most esteemed national journalists writing about major American crises, from Flint’s Water Crisis to the spread of PFAS contamination in American communities. 
Kris just launched his new book, Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia, last fall. Telling the story of an environmental lawyer who waged a seven year legal battle with a large coal company over what was suspected to be a contaminated water supply in Mingo County, West Virginia, the book has been very well-received.
Learn what makes Kris tick, and understand the mindset of a national reporter as you prepare your organization for the next possible crisis.

Episode 10: Kris Maher - The Wall Street Journal

by On Crisis Podcast

Read the Transcript

Joanna Doven (00:00:07):

I’m Joanna Doven. This is on crisis, bringing together PR experts, thought leaders, creatives, and CEOs here to start conversations and connect people with real life stories in crisis communications.

Joanna Doven (00:00:21):

I’m so excited to have my good friend, long-time friend, Kris Maher on the podcast today. I’ve known you for a long time dating back to when I was the press secretary for the mayor. And you would call me about if he crises, right, if there was, I remember talking to you when there was a tornado randomly in the city. Great- I mean, this is Pittsburgh. We’re not Kansas, but there was a tornado. And I think Mount Washington, 2007, maybe, and

Kris Maher (00:00:51):

I remember 2009, the, the G20 summit, we took a tour of downtown and all the changes that all the roads have been paved, all the changes in the city to accommodate world leaders. It was a big deal at the time.

Joanna Doven (00:01:10):

That is, that’s very true. I mean the G20 is a bit of a blur, but now that you bring that back, I the writing app effort and, you know, in my job, my, you know, I was the intermediary intermediary between all media and the mayor’s office, which was, which was fun. Lots of fun. I’m here today because you’ve really come a long way in your career. You’ve reported on so many major crises where the, the little man, the little woman, the children, you know, have, have been left behind. And I think of today, you know, 20, 21, where people are afraid to use their voice in a way. I mean, people use their voice on social media. We have these, these, these social justice movements, but people are also afraid to use their voice. If they know there’s not a lot of people with them, right.

Joanna Doven (00:02:07):

Because of the so-called “cancel culture.” And your book really reminds me of the importance of courageous leadership and the face of the powerful, the powerful, right? So let’s talk about this. So desperate, an epic battle for clean water and justice in Appalachia. How did you come to write this book? How did you decide- Okay, so now, now for our audience, she reported on the Flint, Michigan water crisis. Correct. Everybody knows. If you’re listening to this, to know about that. And you know, other major national events, but this Appalachian situation where there were forgotten communities, where there were thousands of residents stranded without clean water for decades to your attention. So tell me why you wrote this book.

Kris Maher (00:03:01):

So yeah, first of all, thank you so much for having me Joanna. It’s so good to talk to you. It’s great to see you. And I’m looking forward to talking about the book, just really appreciate your interest in the book and the story and my reporting and everything. So really that’s great. Yeah. So, and also, I mean, maybe I can start, I know that you focus on crisis communications. And so I’ve learned about this story, this water contamination lawsuit in Mingo County, West Virginia, back in 2010. And it was right after the Massey Energy, upper big branch mine explosion. So that was, that was a, that was a huge crisis for call it for, yeah. For

Joanna Doven (00:03:46):

How many died in that explosion?

Kris Maher (00:03:46):

29 coal miners.

Joanna Doven (00:03:48):

I remember, I remember I was doing a I was doing a media training for an energy company and I used, I think it was Don Blankenship. There was a press conference about this and the people didn’t have water because of the explosion and the spokesperson, which I believe was, it was an executive, was holding a bottle of water at the podium and drinking it while he was talking to reporters. And I thought, how tone deaf could you be? Okay, continue. Yeah.

Kris Maher (00:04:15):

Well, that’s, it’s really great that you mentioned that because that was the, that was the chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia in 2014. So that was kind of that, that shows up in the epilogue of my book. So we’re in the beginning and in the end, we kind of have the bookmarks, the what do you call it? The, yeah, the bookmarks here. So April, 2010 Massey Energy’s upper big branch mine exploded. There were, I went down there and covered it with national media. I mean, there was a this road in West Virginia that was lined with white satellite trucks, CNN, all the major news outlets were there. I mean, even international media was there as well for about three or four days where they were searching under ground with these mine rescue teams to see if there were any survivors, And there weren’t in the end.

Kris Maher (00:05:05):

So 29 men were killed. And that was really just a huge blow to the state of West Virginia, especially to southern West Virginia, where coal mining is- most of the coal mining occurs. And also to Massey Energy and to Don Blankenship. It changed the trajectory of the company and the, and the- well Blankenship had to leave the company by the end of the year, because there were civil and criminal investigations that followed the accident. So I covered those for months. Like those were these long-term reporting that I just followed all the developments of the civil investigation. And then ultimately, Don Blankenship was indicted and he was convicted and he was sentenced to a year in prison. He served a year and got out in 2017, I believe. So that was my starting point for getting to West Virginia and to Massey. I’d kind of reported on Blankenship previously, just as a coal executive.

Kris Maher (00:06:10):

But in my reporting, after the accident, I was doing also some environmental reporting on mountaintop removal mining, which is this very destructive form of coal mining, where they blast off the tops of mountains instead of tunneling underground, they just remove the top of the mountain to get the coal. And I remember having a conversation with someone, an environmental activist, and he said at the very end of the call, you know, “I know that you’re interested in Massey in Blankenship, but you should check out- call this lawyer and his name’s Kevin Thompson, he’s in Williamson, West Virginia and Mingo County.” So I did call Thompson. I went down there and I saw that he was-

Kris Maher (00:06:47):

So this was, this was an environmental activist who work for, there was an organization called the Sludge Safety pProject. And so he, so I went down to Williamson, which is about 90 miles south of Charleston. So it’s right on the border with Kentucky, very beautiful area, just green hills, everywhere. There’s no flat land. And this old coal railroad city of Williamson is this fading coal town. And there’s this old hotel called the Mountaineer. And this is where Thompson had been pretty much living and working for years fighting Massey and Don Blankenship. And so I saw his operation. It was these three small connected offices on the fourth floor. He had these like a dark side of the moon poster on the wall. And just some funny things around the office. It was a kind of a mess, mismatched desks and everything. So they were fighting this billion dollar coal company on this shoestring budget.

Kris Maher (00:07:46):

And it was just Thompson himself was incredibly compelling to me right away. Don Blankenship was this compelling figure who was also in the news and the national media consciousness at the time. And then you had all these people there. So in four communities, between the city of Williamson and Matewan, there are these all four old coal camps, you could call them, because they were these communities built by coal companies around the turn of the 20th century and people still live there. And they had been mining pretty steadily up through the 1980s. And so, but what happened starting in the ’80s was that some people’s water started to turn gray and started to smell like chemicals and people were getting rashes and diarrhea and all these kinds of health problems- kidney stones- and they were began to associate the problems, the health problems with the water issues and realize that everyone was having these issues.

Kris Maher (00:08:42):

They were having problems with their plumbing, their water heaters would burn out and they’d have to buy all kinds of plumbing fixtures. And, you know, so it was this really awful situation where people were- I mean, just imagine you turn on your kitchen sink and gray water comes out and it smells like chemicals, or you take a shower and you come out and you have this film on your body. Or, you know, one chem- one, a couple I’ve talked to said they would get out of the shower and they would be dizzy because of the fumes. And it was kind of getting into their- they were breathing it in, they’d have to hold the wall and kind of steady themselves. And so they were living with this for years and, you know, people have been talking to about the book recently were sad, telling me, you know, how could they have lived this way for years and struggled?

Kris Maher (00:09:29):

And what if this happened in Pittsburgh, people would be outraged and you know, there’d be national media attention, but this is a remote area. They did reach out to their state officials. I mean, they reached out to Senator Byrd, Senator Rockefeller Joe Manchin, who was the Secretary of State at the time, their county officials, the governors, they, they couldn’t get a waterline. They, they were relying on well water. So, and Massey, which had a coal preparation plant nearby, and this giant impoundment, which holds this coal slurry, which we can get into just what that stuff is: It’s this black sludge that is from coal processing and it has to be stored. So they were the most suspicious potential, you know, cause of the, of the water contamination and the company denied affecting any well. So eventually,

Joanna Doven (00:10:23):

And let me, let me just pause you here. Just sort of give my, take an and I, and I, and I read the book and it’s, it’s just, it’s so good. I can’t, I can’t tell you, I can’t tell the audience enough how well it’s written, how well it’s researched and in particular, anyone who wants to understand the power struggles that will always exist. I think they will always exist in any kind of government, whether it’s not talk Resy or democracy, right. There’s always going to be those who were in power and those who are not. And, and it’s, it’s, it’s, I mean, it’s, it’s called a David Goliath story, which I think is an overused term, but it really does fit this. Now, when I think about water, you know, I grew up in Claritin, right? Clarin cook works while Jefferson Hills. So we were up the hill of McLaren cook works and you know, our water wasn’t well water, but I, you know, to this day, as a kid, remember pouring glass of water from the sink, right.

Joanna Doven (00:11:27):

And just smelling it. And you, you smell chemicals, you know, even in my tap water where I live in my nice suburban community, I don’t drink my tap water because it smells like chemicals. Right. And that’s just my inner knowing of, you know, our bodies are 60% water. Right. I want to make sure I have good mineral water in my body. And I guess what, though, I can go and buy it. I can afford it. Right. If I couldn’t afford it, I would be drinking the tap water, the people who were left behind in the forgotten communities, they not only trusted, you know, the coal mine, the coal mines were the employment source for, for decades. Now we can go through the history and the books and anything. Right. But the power structure that you had to suck up to, so to speak so that your family was secured a job, they were, the people also poisoning the water. So you could imagine the inability to have a voice that gets through tell us, tell us when the, what voice started to finally get through what was the breakthrough where these communities began to be heard.

Kris Maher (00:12:42):

So, yeah, just what you said has just sparked a few thoughts to me. One thing I just want to mention is that, you know, I, I found this Penn State study recently that was done this year that found that 60 million Americans don’t drink their tap water, which was really surprising to me. So those are not all people who are affluent or middle-class, or have a, you know, steady income, even those are people in all kinds of communities. So that’s, that’s an economic pressure on a lot of people and it’s just a stunning figure to me, 60 million people. And yeah, so wanted to mention that. So these are, you know, I’ve been thinking about how does this book relate to what’s happening across the country? Well, many people don’t trust their water and for good reason and a lot of cases, because there are pesticides or chemicals or all sorts of things that, you know, they get reports from their utility.

Kris Maher (00:13:36):

It says, you know, we violated this regulatory standard or whatever. So it is a problem nationally. But just, just to go back to your question about where, when did the voice start to break through? So initially you know, and there were people who even throughout the case, didn’t want to Sue the coal company, because as you said, you know, this was the biggest coal company in West Virginia. It’s the biggest one in Mingo county, for sure. And people in the communities had worked for not only the coal industry, but for Massey and for the subsidiaries in the area. So they were worried that if they sued the company, maybe they would be blackballed or, you know, their uncle or whoever in the family might have a hard time getting a job. So that was one kind of pressure in the community that existed and kept people from or made it, made it a risk to really raise their voice and to, to Sue the company and to step out into, you know, because once you see the company, you also are, you become public in a way, but through the whole process, the company is going to depose you.

Kris Maher (00:14:46):

And they’re going to ask you all sorts of questions and

Joanna Doven (00:14:49):

You know, personal life, right?

Kris Maher (00:14:53):

Yeah. So people who it’s, that’s a very invasive situation anyway. But if, if it’s coming from the one company that employs many people in the area, it’s, you know, it’s a difficult proposition for people. So initially in 2004, there were three, three families I’d say, or three men from the community who reached out to Kevin Thompson, the environmental lawyer. One is a pastor in the community named Larry Brown, his brother, Ernie, who is, was a coal miner until he was injured. And then BI salmons who had worked in the, for the railroad and various other jobs, he’d been a deputy sheriff. So they reached out to Thompson. They called him and he was working on another case in the area. He went, he initially met them by driving to one of the communities called Raul. He went to a church where they said to meet him.

Kris Maher (00:15:47):

Kevin walked into the church, he expected to meet three people. And the church was packed with people and they were all complaining about their water and their health. And, you know, right from that moment, he realized there was potentially a significant case here with a lot of people involved. But even when they had those meetings and they’d have them in Larry Brown’s church, it’s at the top of this hollow called roll. And it sits at the very end of the road. And so it’s this just white church with a steeple and they’d have meetings in there. And Larry would tell me that, you know, they were afraid that maybe some, this company would send a spy in or someone just to listen and find out what they were doing. So they never were really entirely felt, you know, safe. And that was kind of a threat throughout the whole, you know, that was the undertone of the case that Kevin is living in this hotel in Williamson where Don Blankenship walks down the street and goes to the restaurants and everyone knows him. And most people support the industry and here’s this environmental lawyer kind of behind enemy lines. He’s, he’s living and working there and people get to know him. And so there’s an interesting relationship between Kevin and the community as well.

Joanna Doven (00:17:02):

Yeah. And it sort of develops over time and, and Kevin, I mean, what an amazing person he is. I hope that this turns into a movie because you know, Kevin had family in new Orleans and Louisiana and he, he literally went basically bankrupt in order to fund this effort. Of course he had help. He ended up getting help and ultimately succeeding, but he had to make so many sacrifices. Not many people are that selfless, not many people are that selfless. And how would you describe him so young, I’m sure you know him really well. How, how would you, what do you think in him? Have you seen anybody like him in your career?

Kris Maher (00:17:45):

Well, no, I haven’t. And I haven’t met any lawyers who are like Kevin specifically. And even when I talked to lawyers, they portray him as being a very unique individual and not like other, other attorneys. So he, he’s a brilliant guy. He is very charismatic the thing. And he, he was really into the science of the lawsuit that was sort of his domain was to be in charge of the science, but he also, you know, and as I described, the office was kind of in disarray, he’s not the most organized person. He would admit that. So he kind of would collect around him, people who were, who would keep them on track or let them know when there was a filing due. So they didn’t miss deadlines or hearings. So he showed up or deposition. But he, you know, and it’s interesting too, because one thing I was fascinated about him.

Kris Maher (00:18:41):

One thing about him that fascinated me was this question of why did he jump into this lawsuit? This thing that ended up being, taking seven years of his life, as you, as you mentioned, you know, it took him, it took him away from his wife and his teenage daughter in new Orleans. And, you know, he did go bankrupt several times. There were times when he had no money whatsoever. He couldn’t go to the ATM machine. He had this trick where he could use his debit card one last time at a, at a gas station. And it was, it would, so he’d be able to pay for it, even though he had no money in his, in his account. I don’t know if that trick still works, but he, one time he was driving back to the Mountaineer hotel from, I think it was from Kentucky at the time.

Kris Maher (00:19:27):

And he ran out of money and he just wrote a sign and stood outside of Walmart. And someone gave him $20. A woman came up and said, here you go, honey. And so he bought gas and drove home, but the thing is, you know, so why did he do this? Was it incredible a bravery or, and this was something that some of the clients in the case that people also wanted with me was, you know, did he know what he was getting himself into? And I think the answer is that he really did not know what he was getting into. And he thought initially the evidence was so strong that he’d be able to reach a settlement with the company, but he sort of didn’t know that he was suing Massey Energy and Don Blankenship who doesn’t back down from a lawsuit. I mean, he Blankenship initiates a lot of defamation lawsuits.

Kris Maher (00:20:15):

You know, he eventually sued Kevin Thompson Massey did for defamation that was eventually dismissed, but, you know, not afraid to use the legal system. And they were had a very well financed defense and a powerful law firm defending Massey Energy. So Kevin against all odds kind of just leaped into this, you know, he did have a firm backing him, you know, as you mentioned, he had a big firm that spent several million dollars on experts and, you know, getting medical records hundreds of thousands of medical records. And he had to actually get help from two other law firms as well. So there were three eventually that were backing him because it took so much to fight mass energy,

Joanna Doven (00:20:58):

But a paled into comparison. You know, I just, to what Massey had, you know, I’ve often represented civil large civil litigation firms who were filing class actions against a major corporation, two that come to mind. And I also would figure out what the story was. So one example, one recent one was the most common sleep apnea machine that’s used throughout America made by Phillips Resperonics, which is a Pittsburgh based company now. Right. had a foam piece in it that would basically stop the humidity and saliva buildup that was cancer was cancerous when you inhaled the fumes of it, which you were doing all night long and you should, you’re, you’re putting your papers written about it. Of course. And wow. I mean, I ha you know, when I have to pour over all of these legal documents and, and it’s any, any reporter or editor who’s told me that they can’t stand these, these tort lawsuits in these lawyers that are just out to make money, I gotta tell them to read your book, because if we’re not for the class action system, right.

Joanna Doven (00:22:29):

Where you can organize people to bring about a complaint in a class against the corporation, then, you know, it’s, it’s one check and it’s one extremely important check and check and balance. One thing that I really struck me in your book is, you know, a lot of the judges that were hearing the, this case, you know, they had long-term relationships with, you know, the Massey family with Don Blankenship. And while we trust our judicial system, we think they’re going to be objective we’re people, we’re humans. And, you know, so, but what was so, but eventually there was a judge that moved it forward. Right. And that was sort of the, when now we can do discovery and get things moving. Right.

Kris Maher (00:23:23):

Right. Well, yeah, there’s a couple of things like in what you just said, you know, that the tort, or this is a toxic tort case where they’re alleging that something, that company did caused contamination and harm people’s health. So this case really came about because there was, there had not been another solution people through the government, the state and local government, or through the company, people were not getting anywhere. So they turn to a lawyer in the judicial system, legal system. So this was there and not something they wanted to do initially, partly because of the ties to the coal industry, I think. And just because they’re not just people who go and soup, you know, companies regularly. And so, so that, that’s why this came about. And so I think these toxic tort cases in a lot of times, they come about because there is a problem and the state or federal, federal regulation likely failed in some way, you know, they, in this case, going back to the 1980s, the state regulators were very concerned about the company’s operations and what they were doing with this coal slurry. So just, just for a little background. So when coal companies mined the coal, they have to clean it before they can put it on a train and sell it, or put it on a truck. And that cleaning process creates this slurry, which is basically they’re injecting water into the coal and getting rid of Ash or Brock and all sorts of things

Joanna Doven (00:25:00):

To do that.

Kris Maher (00:25:01):

And they do use chemicals to, right? Yes. They, they well, they use like magnetite, which changes the it’s a very technical well engineered process, really complex. I’ve seen the inside of this coal preparation plant on videos and it’s incredibly complicated process, but in the end, right, then there are chemicals that are put in to kind of float the coal in these holding ponds too. And so in the end, you have this black sludge, the slurry and companies have to do something with it. So initially they were trying to use this process where they would get the water out and form this cake called the filter cake, these round discs. And they would put that down a hillside into a refuse pile. And that was probably a safer in terms of the environmental consequences. That was probably safer method. The other, another method is to put it into an impoundment and then they can, the other option at the time was to inject it underground and so

Joanna Doven (00:26:03):

Injected underground. So basically the sludge. So when they clean the coal, which is, I mean, tons and tons and tons of cool with chemical compounds and water, you get like a, a runoff you know, that’s, that’s the unwanted, that’s the, it’s the toxic part. Right. And they were injecting it literally in the earth next to people’s Wells.

Kris Maher (00:26:36):

So, yes, I mean, this area, there’s four communities here that are the focus of this lawsuit and whatever that I wrote about. So underneath the communities, underneath some of the homes, I mean, there are just layers of coal seams and those seams, there were four major ones in this area that had been mined. So they’re just B the mountains are basically honeycombed with these empty mines and the company pumped hundreds of millions of gallons of this call slurry into the mines. And it’s, it’s all in the same general area. So yeah, and the thing is, this was a fairly common practice. I mean, going back to the 1960s, at least where they were doing this, and, but in the 1980s, the regulators, the, the laws were getting stronger in the state about regulating clean water. And so the regulators were really wanting to limit this activity, but in the end, the company kind of blew past some of the limits that the state put on. And they did it for a much longer time, much more slowly went into the ground. So,

Joanna Doven (00:27:45):

But for our audience, so slurry going into the ground. So they’re, but they’re creating some kind of container under the ground.

Kris Maher (00:27:52):

The company says they’re putting it back into the mine. And then there are seals in the tunnels of the mine. The thing is, there’s all kinds of cracks in the strata from either surface mining, either just from nature or from surface blasting on the top of the Ridge, or there are also some mind fires in this area. And when the coal and the mind fires burn, I mean, these fires burn for years, the coal gets consumed. And then when the coals burned up, there’s, there’s a cavity left behind. So that’s another avenue for water to travel. So, but the company said that all this slurry would be contained. Their experts said that initially you know, so there’s different lines of defense. The slurry’s contained, the slurry didn’t get to the wells. If it did get to the wells, it didn’t affect anyone’s health. You know, there are different, different sort of points along the way where the company could put up a barrier. And then, yeah, so, sorry, I forget your other part.

Joanna Doven (00:28:55):

I mean, just sort of, so the, so the point is that the cheapest way for the sludge to be put in a place where it seemed to be safe was to put it underground in the mind already, the mind shaft that was already there, right. It was already there. We’ll put it in there. And how many years, or how many decades was this happening and how much for how many years was that then contaminating well water and just give, give us a ballpark two decades.

Kris Maher (00:29:27):

So well, so the preparation plant went into operation in the late seventies about 78. And so they started injecting pretty soon after that. And, but the most of the injection happened in say about 1984 to 1987. So there was a period where about a billion gallons was injected in total. It’s not clear, the starting point in the end points are kind of hazy, but so yeah, that’s when that was happening, that the really interesting thing was that when Kevin Thompson came along, a lot of this history had been forgotten sort of, you know so he had to investigate this. This was sort of a mystery, you know, he had to depose former executives and he had to dig through all the documents that the company was turning over. And then finally, he also had to get some documents that the company didn’t turn over that were at the state, but were difficult to find for a reason. That’s not entirely clear, but one person that worked with Kevin’s house and said that he was told to just come to the office, they were getting ready to throw out some documents. So these were, you know, these would be very interesting for the case and to come get these boxes of records that were,

Joanna Doven (00:30:43):

And this is, what’s so amazing to me is that there, if, if people who are listening and I look at my own self, right, cause I can only think of my, I formulate opinions based on my experiences. You know, there was a time in my life where, you know, you would hear things like this and you would say to yourself, there’s no way somebody would do that. Oh, these conspiracy theorists, right. But anyone who has a blanket feeling of how could somebody do something this bad, that’s not even possible. You’re a conspiracy theorist needs to read. This book needs to read this book because bad things happen when the powerful have one goal. And that is to make as much money as possible at whatever cost and whatever expense possible. And that’s what was happening here. I mean, that’s, that’s literally what was happening. And, you know, even to the you know, there was a point in the book when a judge ruled that Don Blankenship Massey Energy needed to provide bottled water to the community until the line got finished. Right. And it’s funny because wasn’t Don Blankenship, didn’t he have a safe drinking line that he put in.

Kris Maher (00:32:04):

So yes, that’s, that’s something that Kevin was really focused on, especially when the case was going to go to trial every time he would, this was a major part of his opening and probably would have been as closing defense or argument too, which was that while everybody else in these four communities had this contaminated, well, water Don Blankenship who lived in one of the four communities, amazingly, even though he was CEO of his billion dollar coal company, he lived in this old mind superintendents house up on a hill, in a, on a property that was far bigger and surrounded by a black gate. And but he would, he did live and drive right through the, you know, where the communities are, but he had a waterline that came from mate one, which was the city to the east. And yes, and, you know, Kevin did dig into that about he deposed on Blankenship, which is kind of one of my favorite scenes in the book probably is when Kevin and Don Blankenship ended up, face-to-face in a room together.

Kris Maher (00:33:06):

This is happens at the Mountaineer hotel and Kevin deposes Blankenship. And he tries to ask him, you know, why did you build this waterline? And he also tries to ask them about all the slurry injection as well. And the Massey’s lawyer throws up all kinds of defenses and tries to really limit what’s what’s said there. And, but blankets are basically says that he doesn’t really recall, you know, how they got the water line. He always told somebody at the company, if it becomes available, let’s do it because the city water is better than the regular Appalachian water. Anyway, so so, and when I interviewed Blankenship myself, he also said that he didn’t think the company had affected any of the Wells, that the water was deteriorating over the decades. Anyway, because there’ve been about a hundred years of mining in the area. You know, but if, sort of the way I think of that is if you follow that logic and the mining itself was making the water worse than injecting a billion gallons of coal slurry is not going to make it any better. You know, it’s not,

Joanna Doven (00:34:13):

I mean, it’s like, it’s like somebody who’s sick and then they get shot in the head and you’re like, oh, but they were sick, you know?

Kris Maher (00:34:23):

Yeah. So, so he did have a water line, and that was something that did outrage some of the people in the case, how could he have city water when we’re struggling with, you know, paying for water that’s hard to afford or, you know, go into a spring to get water.

Joanna Doven (00:34:39):

Right. I mean, it just the, the, the irony and you think of, you know, he’s living on the high ground, top of the hill, black gate, the forgotten communities there in the valley where they only have sun four hours a day and they never have clean water. And they’re the ones working for, you know, I’m sure barely making a living wage in the coal mines, making him rich and getting sick. It’s it’s it was what was the closest the Charleston Gazette? Was it

Kris Maher (00:35:08):

Oh, closest to you speaker? Well, there’s also, there’s a couple like Appalachian regional there’s Williamson, daily news. And then there was one out of Eastern Kentucky, and then also, but yeah, Charleston Gazette.

Joanna Doven (00:35:22):

And so I, I do remember that there were, there were there was a large national media story on this that helped to get things moving.

Kris Maher (00:35:29):

Yeah. The associated press reporter, Vicky Smith also did some coverage. So, yeah, and I just, you know, so the people, I kind of described what they had to live with in their homes with the water, but the lawsuit itself really took a toll because it was seven years. And, you know, there’s one episode in the story where the judge, who you mentioned the judge and all the issues there, the judge ordered Kevin Thompson to have all of his clients. But at this point there are 700 people in 2009 who are suing the company. And the judge orders, Kevin, to get all 700 people to the courthouse on three days notice. And so, you know, at that point, well, or else they could be thrown out of the case if they don’t show up that day. So, and some people there were, there was a family that lived in Seattle, and then there were people who lived in Kentucky, Tennessee, different places, not very easy for them to pay for a plane ticket or even, you know, stay at a hotel.

Kris Maher (00:36:27):

And Kevin had to kind of get his small staff and go up through these communities and let everybody know this is happening. And it, and then, so this is like some of the things that almost kind of retraumatize people in a way you could say, because they ended up having this one day mediation, they couldn’t fit everyone in the, in the courthouse, which the judge hadn’t thought of initially. So they had to get this gymnasium nearby and they shuttle people back and forth with vans. And it was a hot day. And the judge in the beginning said, he kind of [inaudible]. He basically said, I’ve settled cases like this before. And you can take, basically, you can take a risk and take it to trial. But a lot of times people get more in a settlement than they do a trial. You may not get anything in the end.

Kris Maher (00:37:17):

So one person passed out in the courtroom because he had a diabetic seizure. People were, you know, on one person was on an oxygen tank and they had to tell people eventually to go home. It started, it went from 9:00 AM to about midnight. This is this day-long thing. People had about five minutes to tell the judge whether or not they wanted to accept the company’s offer. And they were just shuttled in and out of this room in a kind of assembly line fashion. And you know, so that was another thing that people had to go through. And they also had to go through the trial being delayed several times over the years, they were, they would get geared up for this moment when they’d be able to tell their stories and then something would happen. And then you also kind of, you alluded to the issues with the judge in Mingo county. There’s only one circuit judge in Mingo county. And Kevin had always kind of liked the judge thought he was, you know did all his reading and knew all the facts of the case and his ruling seemed fair. But at one point, Kevin learned that when they were going to create this trust as a partial settlement, that the judges business partner and bank we’re going to be part of this trust. And it, there was an appearance of impropriety. And so Kevin eventually recused the judge. And that was,

Joanna Doven (00:38:47):

Yeah, that

Kris Maher (00:38:48):

Delayed things an entire year, because then the state Supreme court had to appoint a panel of five judges to overhear the case. They had to get up to speed on it. But the other thing that happened was when they, when Kevin filed his recusal motion, he marched over to the courthouse and, and he’d spoke to the sheriff and the sheriff basically sheriff told him, Kevin said, you know, am I at risk by doing this? Because the county was, the judge was the most powerful person in the county elected official. And Kevin was worried because he’d been getting threats over the years. And so he and a couple of his staff ended up leaving. And this was the period he called the Exodus. They left Williamson because they didn’t feel safe. They’d packed their cars and drove up to Charleston. This was also a time when Kevin didn’t have much money and his car was in the shop and he couldn’t pay to get it out of the shop that had been repaired. So that was this this feeling of tension and being at risk while they’re suing this.

Joanna Doven (00:39:51):

I mean, if we had more time, I’d love to get into the history of the power, struggle that the haves and the have nots in this area of Appalachia, you know, with Hatfields and McCoys, and basically what Kevin Thompson and his team was doing is they were unearthing no pun intended, a power structure that has existed for over a century and a period of around a decade. Right. But, but the, the level of, of tamale and just, I mean, the, the, the people, part of that were part of the class action suit. Yeah. They, there, most of them were sick and all of them have, were greatly impacted by the poisonous water, but they weren’t just speaking for themselves. I mean, they were speaking for their ancestors. Right. And their kids. I mean, you hear, I’ve read, you know, the stories you wrote about how their kids, you know, couldn’t conceive all of these things, you know, these health things that impacted life, like actual, real life, you know, ability to create life.

Kris Maher (00:41:06):

Yeah. So just, just to be really brief. So going back in the book, I go back to the 19th century and the Hatfield-McCoy feud. And, but I try to look at it through not the stereotypical or sensationalized way of, you know, looking at the story. Whereas these just lawless mountaineers who are just have this blood feud, because they’re hate each family hates each other, but really what was happening at the time in the late 1880s, the railroad was coming through. So in 1892, the railroad came right through this area, completely transforming it and industrializing it from what had been timbering and agrarian culture farming. All of a sudden all these minds sprouted up, but that, that railroad coming through really also affected the few, what we call the feud because it made the land values appreciate. And there was some of the fighting, I think the scholars are, I think they’re correct on this.

Kris Maher (00:42:07):

It seems to me that some of the fighting was just over this land. It was, it was business interest, actually getting involved in what had been a, a fight previously but just inflaming it. So that was sort of a fight over land. And then in the 1920s, you have this fight over labor where the United mine workers is trying to organize the miners, you know, the may one massacre and this huge three days battle, right in this area where the four communities are, you had hundreds of people living in tents because they’d been, they’d been evicted from their homes by the coal companies. And so that was a fight over labor. And then I think the way I was viewing it is that this fight with the lawsuit is more of this. It’s a fight over the environment over people’s health and the community.

Kris Maher (00:42:54):

And so you have these, these episodes, but underlying them all, there’s this, what you were just saying is there’s this, these dynamics, these power dynamics where you had the outside corporate interests come in, you know, buy up the mineral rights in the land. And they controlled basically how people lived for generations. And so the people who were in Kevin’s lawsuit, their parents and grandparents had been in some of those struggles. And sometimes some, some of them had been living in tents, fighting the company with rifles at the time, you know, so this was deeply ingrained, you know, and I wanted to capture that without being overplaying or, you know, stereotyping this as a, as a bloody Mingo, which is called or a corrupt place. But the fact is there really was a lot of struggle in this really small this one contained place, it’s got an incredible history. So it’s just a fascinating place,

Joanna Doven (00:43:56):

Right? And, and, and anywhere that we are right, anywhere that we are as humans, wherever we are, we are there because of the struggles that people endured before us. And, and, and, and to understand that and have it documented and have it taught is really what makes people brave enough to endure the next struggle, right? Because there’s Al there’s always going to be more struggle. It’s just, we don’t live in utopia and that’s how we grow. So I know we don’t have a lot of time, so I have a couple of questions before I get to them wrap up, wrap up and, you know, we can leave some cliffhangers for those. Who’ve still need to get the book. I’m going to show it again, desperate and epic battle for clean water and justice and Appalachia by Kris Maher. What, what ends up happening? Give us the summary of, okay. How the epic decade, long battle, what happens to Don Blankenship? What happens to the people are they made whole financially what happens?

Kris Maher (00:45:04):

So, yes, and I don’t want to tell everything, but I will say that there is eventually the settlement, there’s no trial. So that’s also a reason why I wanted to write the book. You know, the fact that people didn’t get to tell a story in open court, which would have been definitely reported on in the state and potentially been national news at the time, I think clearly would have been. So the many parts of the story hadn’t been told, and especially everything that Kevin went through, but some of the families as well. So the fact that there was no trial was a painful thing to people. It was disappointing to Kevin,

Joanna Doven (00:45:46):

Pause you right there, because that is something that happens in small cases, whether it’s family court, custody, law, whether it’s you know, cases under 1 million of corporate greed, that our system is built on mediation. And, and these judges don’t want to go to trial. And what happens then is people are, are robbed of their voices. They’re robbed of their voices, and you cannot heal if you don’t share your story. There’s, there’s all, now there’s all this new age psychology on this. And they call it trauma incident reduction to re because we keep retraumatizing ourselves. If we don’t heal, if we don’t heal and you do that through sharing stories and telling your story, and these people were robbed of that. And so what you did by writing this book, you helped people heal. And that is something that you must, you should feel very proud of yourself. You should.

Kris Maher (00:46:48):

Well, I appreciate that. Thanks. Thank you, Joanna. Yeah, I, I just have always felt that this was an amazing story and I just wanted to do it justice. I could do, you know, do the best job I could do telling it because there’s so many amazing people in the story. And you know, but I also just the fact that there was a settlement was a good thing in a sense, because it brought, it brought resolution to the case. But it was a complicated one. You know, the good thing is that. So with the settlement, even if Kevin Thompson had won the company in all likelihood would have appealed that could have dragged on for years. And at the time when the case was settled, you know, I think the lawyers were thinking at the time and the people approved the settlement, the clients did that, you know, some people, some people died during the course of this case.

Kris Maher (00:47:40):

And some people just would not have been around if this case dragged on for another decade. So it did bring resolution. It was complicated because the money had to be distributed. And that brought all kinds of that was a very fraught process as well, which is interesting at the end. But in the end, you know, Don Blankenship goes to prison, comes back, and there’s an incredible scene where Kevin Thompson and Don Blankenship meet up again. I won’t go into it too much, but they, Kevin I’ll just tell you, Kevin was at the Charleston airport getting ready for an early morning flight and Kevin being Kevin, he was in, he wasn’t listening to when the flights were being called. And he was, he had, Charleston’s incredibly small airport, but he had to like race to get to the, to the plane on time, sits down. And then he sees somebody come into the plane next to him, fold up his blue blazer, put it in the overhead.

Kris Maher (00:48:39):

And it’s Don Blankenship who sits down next to them. So they, they ended up sitting on a plane together, flying down to Atlanta and they have this long conversation years after the case. And so that’s one thing that happens in the epilogue, but yeah, there’s, there’s a few things that happen and, you know, the people are doing better by the end. And the families that have been dealing with the water are doing better, but I just went there recently to, to deliver some books to people. And, you know, I talked to Larry Brown just outside his church where Kevin went the first time and he, he turned to the last page cause he knew that I had already told him, I gave him the last word in the book and he pointed to the bottom and he said, it should say to be continued, it should say, you know, we’re still living with this water. We don’t know what’s going to happen. Families still have health issues. And, and as a result of the settlement, there’s medical monitoring, which is this really interesting remedy for these toxic tort cases. So every two years doctors come through and people have the chance to get checked out. And the idea behind that is that if their problems are caught early, then have a better chance to to, to get better.

Joanna Doven (00:49:58):

Yes. Yes. And, oh, there’s just so much there. There’s just so much there. It’s it’s so, wow. Okay. I have three questions in that I know, I know you have to, I mean, you’re still, you’re a full-time wall street journal reporter covering the next crisis. Right? What are you working on now?

Kris Maher (00:50:16):

Well I’m doing well definitely some water issues and then some education issues right now and COVID and yeah, so kind

Joanna Doven (00:50:25):


Joanna Doven (00:50:28):

It doesn’t stop. So, okay. We live in, in a place with a great history of pollution, you know, the city of Pittsburgh. And while, while we’d like to think we’ve turned the corner, we know that there still is significant pollution, partly based on where we sit in relation to coal fired power plants, south of us, but also the Claritin cope works, which pollutes the valley. You know, you, you know, I used to live close to you in squirrel hill and that rotten egg smell would wake me up quite often, the sulfur smell. So in the context of what you’ve been through and all you’ve learned in writing this book, how are you approaching environmental issues and Pittsburgh when you’re pitched them when you’re given the opportunity to write about them?

Kris Maher (00:51:22):

So well, I’m, I am really interested in the effect of Claredon Koch works, Edgar Thompson plant Neville island, I think different different sources here, but especially the U S steel because it’s such, I mean, those plants are from around 1900 and they have these decades old Coke batteries. And, you know, I am really fascinated in how that company continues to affect the area, even as, even as the new industries, the EDS and meds have grown so powerful here. So I’m always interested in stories about that and, you know, and I do, I do breathe the same air that everyone here does. So I’m interested for that reason as well. Yeah, I think you know, they had the fire in 2018 that, that caused all sorts of problems and, you know, legal ramifications as well. So I, I’m always up to cover those types of stories.

Joanna Doven (00:52:25):

All right. Crack the all the fracking that’s that’s happened in Western Pennsylvania and you know, all the frack ponds. Do you, you know, and there was an investigative series in public source and the post Gazette Pittsburgh has a two big publications here that looked at potential health impacts in Washington county you know, looking at kids that had these weird tumors and things like that. How, what do you think about that?

Kris Maher (00:53:01):

So actually I did, I did one story on that too. It was a Ewing sarcoma and there were these cases in Washington county. So it was, as I remember, you know, it wasn’t resolved. It’s really hard to prove a cancer cluster or hard to prove causation, but I did go into the homes of some of the families that live there and they were able to just point and say, you know, well, one family had a really devastating story. Their son died of Ewing sarcoma, but he, he ended up getting married before he died really young. And he’d been a star baseball player really, really moving story, amazing story. And, but they pointed, you know, and said 300 yards in this direction. Another boy died. And then right over there, someone else died and these are incredibly rare cancers, but again, it’s hard to, it’s hard to prove that causation, I know the state department of health was looking at it. So it’s something that I would want to follow up on and see if it occurred anywhere else in the country or yeah.

Joanna Doven (00:54:09):

You can’t help you can’t help, but think of Hmm. You know? Yeah. So, I mean, look, the reality is our federal government. I mean, this is my opinion, you know, especially our FDA they’re poisoning us every day, right. By the amount of chemicals that they, that they allow to be in our food supply. You know, I tell the story of, of milk. Okay. So, you know, I’m a bit of a wellness scheme because I care about how I feel. I care about my kids. I care about my community. It’s just common sense for me, but you know, chocolate milk has 47 grams of sugar in it. Like the little carton that you get at schools. Okay. And I don’t think that my kids should be offered chocolate milk because they’re not going to eat. They’re not going to eat their food. Right. I don’t even let me go into the food, but let’s just say I pack their lunch and they can get milk.

Joanna Doven (00:55:04):

I don’t want them to do it. So I remember I asked the principal at my school district elementary school, I said, can I ask you a question? Why do you give kids option of white milk, strawberry milk, or chocolate milk? First of all, no, kid’s going to choose white milk their kids. Okay. Second of all, after the age of five kids don’t even have the lactose enzyme to digest it properly. And it’s basically, it’s an, it’s an inflammation for them. And you know what he said, the federal government gives them money to provide that free milk it’s paid for by the federal government, by the federal government. If they don’t allow chocolate milk and strawberry milk, that money goes away.

Kris Maher (00:55:50):

Oh, wow.

Joanna Doven (00:55:50):

Okay. So then you just follow the money. He followed the money of the dairy industry and you will go, you look at all of that in everywhere around us. It’s toxic capitalism everywhere around us. And it, you know, it’s, so it is so hard to get that message out there and get people to pay attention. And this book is, is just one very stark example of it, so. Okay. Thank you. I have two more questions. One more question, because I know you have to work consider why. Okay. How did this book, how did this book change you as a person?

Kris Maher (00:56:25):

Oh wow. That’s a good question. So, well, it was incredibly hard to do that. The structure was hard to come up with because it was, so there was just so many characters. There was Kevin and his young staff. We didn’t really even mention them, but he called them the hippies. They were these young act- some of them were activists. One was a journalist, one was an artist and they work with him out of the hotel. And they all had interesting stories. Then there were the families that had really interesting stories and Don Blankenship and the company and the company’s history. So how to weave all those together was really tough at first, you know? And it’s given me definitely a new sense of what it takes to write a book. I really didn’t know beforehand. I kind of thought before I wrote this book, I thought when I read a book, I’m just reading what happens.

Kris Maher (00:57:17):

I’m just reading everything that happened. The person wrote it down, transcribed it as almost, but I realized that every step of the way there are choices to make about what you include, what you don’t include. How do you describe it? That was a really just as a journalist that really changed my way of thinking about storytelling and going from writing a thousand word article to a hundred thousand word book and how to maintain a narrative over that time. It’s really, it’s really changed how I think about reporting and writing too. But I did love the reporting and the writing the late hours up until two or later in the morning, you know, writing when I could and just driving down to West Virginia. I loved that every time. So I think it’s changed me in that. I want to write another book in one way. You know, I want to find another story that has this, these kinds of compelling characters. And

Joanna Doven (00:58:13):

Have you found it yet?

Kris Maher (00:58:15):

Not yet. I have a couple of ideas, but maybe an environmental book kind of, but I, I definitely want to have, you know, people who are, who you’d want to read about who are doing interesting things or taking a risk like Kevin did, or somebody who is such a complicated figure, like Don Blankenship, who, you know, some people love him, respect him, you know, feel grateful that he employed them for years. And then other people think he, well, he was called the dark Lord of coal country. So there, you know, there are other people who think he was just, you know, always, always putting profits ahead of safety. So he, you know, somebody like that, who’s his full of complications and

Joanna Doven (00:58:58):

People are complicated. The world is not black and white. Right. And there’s lots of gray there. And that’s great. I think, I think we all should remember that in this, in this day and age of having this feeling that you have to have this pure ideology or else, or this pure thought, or of, of a certain kind of thought or else you’re, you’re not good. You’re not good enough. You’re bad. And we all know, we all know that that has led to literal, you know, are the worst parts of humanity. That’s that’s what has, that’s where it started that having that pure thought having to, you know, and I’m watching, I’m paying attention closely to what’s happening in our society. And I have, I have a lot of, I have a lot of concerns. And so I can imagine you’re, you’re not short on any topics these days or pitches. Oh, wait, one more thing. Because a lot of the audiences you know, public relations, media relations, you know, practitioners, business owners like myself, and I always love to hear this. How many pitches do you get in a week

Kris Maher (01:00:06):

And a week? You know, I’m, I’m embarrassed to say, I can’t give you a number because I don’t pay attention to a lot of things in my inbox. I really don’t. And that’s because not that I don’t like people, or I don’t want to pay attention. I just have a list that I’d never get through of things to do in terms of reporting or, or life or whatever. But yeah, there are just many times when I don’t I just don’t open the emails. I have a lot of unopened emails.

Joanna Doven (01:00:38):

You have, you have to know the person that’s coming from. Right. And it’s all, it’s still, it’s still relationships matter. And, and yeah, I, I know I talked a lot. This was awhile ago, you know, local media friends, they get like 50 day and then I’m sure you get like thousands, but, but it’s, it’s tough out there. That’s what I’ll say for all of the people who are trying to get stories told by reporters, it’s tough out there. You better have something as good as, as Kevin Thompson.

Kris Maher (01:01:08):

Right? One thing I would say is that I don’t mind that I should never say this, but I’m going to say it anyways. I don’t mind persistence could being a reporter. You know, I’ve had to be persistent until people say no. So I don’t mind if someone follows up, if I haven’t read your email and you follow up with me, you know, I don’t, I don’t mind that.

Joanna Doven (01:01:27):

That’s what I tell my staff. And I’m like, how many times you’ve emailed to? Okay, well, the third I’m sorry I did that. I’m like, you can also pick up the phone. Hey, have you tried the Twitter handle? Hey, have you, you know, what’s the thing, but we don’t, you know, that’s the difference that we, you know, my company, we are at a point and I always have been, I think, where we don’t pitch bad things, we pitch good stories and we want to get them told. So there, you have to have a passion behind that to, in order to be persistent. And if it doesn’t feel right then you’re

Kris Maher (01:01:56):

Yeah. I think you never know somebody who may have had a busy day. You can never take it personally, so,

Joanna Doven (01:02:01):

Yep. Okay. Words, words of wisdom. Kris, thank you so much for your time. I’m excited to see how successful this book becomes. It was just released. It’s it’s going to be a great Christmas stocking stuffer. I know I’ve bought a few for friends, In particular for some lawyer friends. Oh, I think there’s a really good audience there. So for the legal community, because I mean, it’s all about, it’s all about what happens in, in it, you know, instead of toward, towards civil case. Great. Have a great rest of your day and we’ll talk soon.

Kris Maher (01:02:36):

Thanks. Okay, Joanna. Thank you so much. Thanks a lot.


  • How Kris came to take on the story that inspired his book
  • Why Kris felt compelled to tell this story
  • A Western Pennsylvania perspective
  • Kris’ experiences as a crisis reporter


On Crisis: Episode 11

On Crisis: Episode 11

feat. Michael Marr | Former NY Governor Press Secretary Michael Marr joins Joanna Doven to talk about his experience working through crises in corporate America and on Capitol Hill.THE "ON CRISIS" PODCAST: EPISODE 11Michael Marr serves as the Director of Government...

On Crisis – Episode 9

On Crisis – Episode 9

Joanna Doven talks with Jeff Hahn, the Owner and Principal of Hahn Public, to talk his new book, why universities tend to be so bad at crisis communications, and his 5 step method to crisis response.

On Crisis: Episode 8

On Crisis: Episode 8

Reporter Sean Hamill talks about major COVID-19 outbreaks in senior care facilities and how many of them have mishandled the situation, as well as the future of local newspapers, and the key role Facebook and Google can play in their comeback.

On Crisis: Episode 7

On Crisis: Episode 7

Billie Jo Weyant, the Executive Director of a small nonprofit, discusses the soaring need for abuse and sexual assault victim services during COVID-19, despite limited resources and diminishing public funding.



Pittsburgh Public Information Officer Chris Togneri talks about how he transformed his office’s social media channels into a newsroom, social media’s potential to allow people to make their own news, and more.



Aurora’s leadership talks about the company’s work with self-driving vehicles, the long-term communications mindset, and why aggressive communications on the company’s “safety first” commitment is paramount.



Allison Bentley talks about applying her lessons-learned at an international retail company to help differentiate a new startup in an evolving industry from its many competitors.



Top legal mind who represents dozens of school districts, Ira Weiss, discusses the importance of having a robust school district communications plan, especially right now.



Senior Managing Director of a large independent advisory firm, Mike Shebak, shares how they pivoted daily client communications during the COVID-19 crisis.



Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Rich Lord talks about the changing media landscape and what that means for managing news media during crises.

Crisis Communications Podcast Art Joanna Doven


Hosted by Joanna Doven, Premo CEO and one of the youngest big city mayoral press secretaries in the United States, On Crisis is a podcast that delves into a daunting challenge that all sectors inevitably face: how to skillfully navigate a crisis. Joined by guest speakers of all industries, Doven takes you “inside the crisis,” discussing real-time decision-making and providing helpful takeaways that can be applied to any business plan.

New episodes airing regularly. Check back soon! 


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