Blankenship has led Massey Energy since 1992, taking the company public and representing Appalachian coal on Wall Street. He started with the company in 1982. An outspoken industry executive, Blankenship was known throughout the coalfields as a shrewd businessman. He routinely went toe-to-toe with environmental alarmists, activist shareholders and organized labor. He has always claimed to be a staunch supporter of the people of West Virginia. He used his clout (and his personal wealth) to affect political and socio-economic change on a regional basis.

The announcement took many in the coal industry by surprise. People either love him or hate him; he is that kind of guy. Obviously, long-time Massey Energy employees respect Blankenship as an executive that provided income for his fellow West Virginians and protected a way of life in a region where high-paying jobs are few and far between. Some consider him to be a philanthropist. His detractors, as one would expect, were  elated and praised the decision.

Blankenship announced his retirement a month after Rolling Stone published a scathing investigative report, “The Dark Lord of Coal Country.” The article is posted on the magazine’s Web site. It’s not the first hatchet job on a coal executive and it won’t be the last. The reporting is far from balanced, but it sheds light on his ascent from hard scrabble to his present “coal baron” status. In addition to some of the more recent news headlines, it looked at A.T. Massey’s success in breaking the United Mine Workers of America’s (UMWA) strike in the mid-1980s. At the time, Blankenship was president of Rawl Coal Sales. Similar to many of his adversaries, the UMWA never fully recovered from that fight and the union will struggle to find another straw man.

In a way, Blankenship was always entertaining. What other coal executive would challenge, host and defeat Robert Kennedy in an environmental debate? He co-hosted a rally on Labor Day weekend last year with right-winged political activists (Sean Hannity, Ted Nugent, etc.) that drew a larger crowd than the UMWA picnic down the road. Then there were the photos of him and Spike Maynard meeting by chance on the French Riviera. Another not-so-glamorous magazine, Coal Age, also covered all of these stories and it tried to treat all sides fairly.

No one, however, can overlook the fact that Massey Energy’s safety and environmental track record has been questionable. The Martin County sludge spill darkened the Ohio River. The Aracoma mine fire exposed unsafe practices underground. Then an explosion during April at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners—the worst U.S. mining accident in 40 years. The tragic loss of life from these mining mishaps casts a pall over any positive message the company tries to put forward. As much as Rolling Stone would like to take credit for taking Blankenship down, everyone knows it was his decision to step down and he probably thought the decision would serve Massey Energy best.

Has the coal industry heard the last from Blankenship? Not hardly. The results of the investigation from the UBB tragedy and the eventual hearings have the potential to become a showdown between Massey Energy and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. There is only one executive that could possibly win in this situation while simultaneously running a major coal company. Now, he is free to focus his efforts on the regulators and his detractors. Blankenship’s testimony will be key. The outcome of this investigation could possibly reshape how the coal industry is regulated.

Steve Fiscor, Coal Age Editor-In-Chief
sfiscor@mining-media.com