Don Blankenship, the chairman and CEO of America's most notorious coal company, unexpectedly announced his retirement this week. If you don't know who Blankenship is or why his departure from Massey Energy is significant, the profile that appeared in Rolling Stone last week ("The Dark Lord of Coal Country") covers that ground thoroughly.
Suffice to say that Blankenship ran Massey with an iron fist and a stunning disregard for the safety of its workers or the environmental effects of its mining practices. Last year alone, Massey had more than 500 safety violations and nearly $1 million in fines, and last April's explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine alone (29 men killed) was America's worst mining tragedy in 40 years.
Whether, as rumored, Blankenship's departure simply clears the way for Massey to merge with or be acquired by another company, time alone will tell. New CEO Baxter F. Phillips Jr. is hardly a fresh face -- he's been with the company even longer than Blankenship. He might be in charge just long enough to oversee a deal.
But whoever ultimately ends up running Massey Energy shouldn't find it hard to do better. The company has been a leading proponent of mountaintop-removal mining for years and, between 2000 and 2007, violated the Clean Water Act more than 4,500 times. Its record number of safety violations has resulted in another, tragic record: In the past decade, 54 Massey workers have lost their lives -- more than at any other American coal company.
More broadly, though, can a company like Massey reinvent itself as a 21st-century energy company? In just the past few years, economic competition from natural gas, regulation of coal-plant emissions, and a growing backlash from the people who live and work in coal country have all created a very different world for Massey Energy. Could we one day see Massey putting wind turbines on mountaintops instead of tearing those mountains apart? Stranger things have happened.