CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Don Blankenship, the outspoken and controversial CEO of Massey Energy, will retire effective Dec. 31, the company announced late Friday.
The move comes amid persistent rumors that Richmond, Va.-based Massey will be sold to another mining firm, and as the company struggles to recover from the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in April, which killed 29 workers and was the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than 40 years.
In a prepared statement issued at about 6 p.m., Massey's board of directors gave no clear reason for the move, but said that Baxter Phillips, Massey's president, would take over as chairman and CEO.
"After almost three decades at Massey, it is time for me to move on," Blankenship said in the company's news release.
"Baxter and I have worked together for 28 years,l and he will provide the company great executive leadership," Blankenship said. "Most of all, I want to thank the members of Massey Energy, whose hard work supports not only their own families, but also contributes greatly to the entire community of Central Appalachia."
Phillips said, "I want to thank Don for all he has done to build Massey Energy. I also want to thank the board for giving me the opportunity to succeed him as CEO. This is a strong and successful coal company, and I will work hard to match and surpass its record of success."
Blankenship has been with Massey since 1982, and served as the company's top executive since 2000.
In that time, the company went public and has grown dramatically -- from 3,600 employees a decade ago to 7,300 today. Annual revenue has nearly tripled in that time, to $2.7 billion in 2009.
"I am deeply grateful to Don for the decisive leadership he has provided to Massey, and we appreciate his success in building this company," said Bobby Inman, the lead independent director on Massey's board. "We all wish him even greater success in the future."
Blankenship's tenure has been marked by bitter disputes with the United Mine Workers union, a series of workplace and environmental disasters, and controversial political involvement that has increasingly drawn negative national attention for Massey.
In the past two years alone, Massey has paid the largest fines ever for a coal-mining death case and for water pollution violations by a mining operator -- $4.5 million for the fatal Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire and $20 million in a water pollution deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Let's pray that a change in leadership leads to a change in attitude," said Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represented the two widows from the Aracoma fire and also sued Massey on behalf of businessman Hugh Caperton, whose lawsuit alleging Massey drove him out of business went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cindy Rank, longtime mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said Blankenship was a bit of a mixed bag for the environmental community. Massey's mining practices damage the environment, she said, but Blankenship's outspoken nature drew more public attention to issues like mountaintop removal.
"He was like a caricature of all that was wrong with the industry today," Rank said.
Chris Hamilton, senior vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association, said the announcement of Blankenship's retirement was "unreal," but declined further comment.
Bill Raney, the association's president, said the retirement came as a complete surprise to him, and that it doesn't mean Blankenship will not continue working in the coal business in some other capacity. Raney called Blankenship one of the most "dynamic, intelligent and capable" leaders the industry has ever had.
Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, noted that Blankenship frequently criticized his group over the years, but that Massey never dropped its membership.
"His criticism was mostly directed at me, and I'm OK with that," Roberts said. "From my point of view, I wish him well.
Roberts said Blankenship grew up poor and "rose to great heights" as Massey's CEO.
"He is such a controversial figure," Roberts said. "He has such strong opinions. He's willing to say things other corporate leaders won't. I hope he will devote his time and resources to making things better for West Virginia and the people in our state."
Blankenship, 60, is a Mingo County native and Marshall University graduate. He left the area for a time, working as an accountant for food companies in the Midwest.
He returned to the state in the 1980s, joining Massey's Rawl Sales and Processing Co. at about the time the firm launched a campaign to rid itself of the national coal contract with the UMW. Blankenship's feud with the union continues to this day, with UMW President Cecil Roberts frequently saying Blankenship "has caused more suffering to more people in the Appalachian region than any one human being I can think of."
In a statement issued Friday night, the UMW's Roberts said Blankenship's retirement "brings to a close a long and difficult chapter in the history of the coal industry, one that has all too often been associated with human tragedy.
"This also represents an opportunity for the coal industry in West Virginia and across the country to take a step away from the negative image that has cast a pall over our industry, created in large part because of the actions of Don Blankenship and Massey Energy while he has been at the company's helm," the union chief said. "Let us take this opportunity to move forward in a reasonable, rational way as we work to overcome the many difficult issues that confront our industry."
Blankenship's battle with the UMW seemingly continued over the past year, as he and Massey have waged a campaign to discredit the Upper Big Branch investigation being conducted by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, now headed by longtime UMW safety director Joe Main.
Blankenship's resignation comes just two weeks after the coal executive hosted about a dozen media representatives for an unusual meeting at Massey's regional headquarters in Boone County. Blankenship spent most of the meeting criticizing MSHA and encouraging reporters to investigate the agency's actions.
On Dec. 14, Blankenship is scheduled to testify under oath before state and federal investigators looking into the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Staff writer Eric Eyre contributed to this report.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.