Coal Tattoo

Well, environmentalists, labor unions and the media won’t have Don Blankenship to kick around anymore.

Or will they?

One of the big questions now that Massey has announced Blankenship’s retirement effective Dec. 31 is what the controversial CEO will do with his time and his many millions.

Whether true or not, the general consensus out there is that the late Friday announcement is a clear sign that Massey is headed for some sort of sale or merger. Check out the reports from The Wall Street Journal (also here),  Bloomberg, The New York Times, and NPR. A follow-up Associated Press story focused on whether Blankenship will still show up to testify  next week in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster investigation, but the more interesting part of the story were comments from Mike Chapman, whose uncle died at Upper Big Branch and whose brother works at a Massey surface mine:

Mike Chapman, whose uncle Kenny Chapman died in the Upper Big Branch explosion, said he hated to see Blankenship leave.

“I think he’s good for the coal business,” said Chapman, whose brother works at a Massey surface mine. “He’s a very, very smart man when it comes to the coal business.”

Chapman said he wondered if Blankenship’s sudden departure had to do with talk of attempts to sell Massey.

“Massey might do better without Don,” Chapman said. “Then again, Don has made that company what it is today.”

For his part, Blankenship — in an exclusive interview with WCHS-TV — sure didn’t sound like his retirement as Massey CEO was mellowing him one little bit:

In an uncertain economy, Blankenship is certain that coal will continue to see West Virginia through. He says Massey is stronger today than it’s ever been.

“The most important thing in the coal business to job security is coal reserves, and Massey has more of them than anybody else in this part of the world. And that’s been the objective for 20 years and I think their job is more secure than most anybody,” he says.

When it comes to regulating coal mines, Blankenship says the biggest thing the government needs is competence.

“They’re just incompetent, they don’t know what they’re doing. They have political motives. We really need some sort of independent review of safety in the coal mines and environmental issues, and come out with what the truth is, as opposed to what’s political or popular,” he says.

Interestingly, Blankenship had this to say about Upper Big Branch:

I pretty well think I know what happened and what the outcome will be, so I’m not concerned anymore about the investigation. I think it’s pretty much behind us.

Maybe so … but Blankenship recently lost a legal effort to have himself dismissed from lawsuits filed by the families of two of the miners who died in the April 5 mine explosion.

And along with his interview, scheduled for Dec. 14, with state and federal investigators on the civil side, there is the ongoing criminal probe of Upper Big Branch.

It will be interesting to see how the national and international media coverage of coal in West Virginia changes with Blankenship gone from Massey’s leadership. His outspoken commentary — on everything from climate change to the court system — made him the irresistible focus for years of most of the coverage of issues like mountaintop removal and mine safety. Without a coal operator who seems almost out of central casting, what sort of narrative will the national media have on the important issues facing the industry and this region?

Of course, perhaps Blankenship will thrust himself back into the limelight with another coal venture, some other business effort or perhaps even a try at politics. And we won’t know for sure what Massey’s future holds until the potential sale or merger plays out.

Still, there’s no question that Blankenship’s departure from Massey also costs environmentalists and labor unions not only an easy nemesis, but steals from them some rare common ground. Without Blankenship to jointly hate, will coal miners and other coalfield residents fight more amongst themselves or perhaps find ways to more forward together?

We’ll have to see … but there was an interesting remark at the end of UMWA President Cecil Roberts’ statement on Blankenship’s retirement:

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. 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.