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Don Blankenship, CEO of West Virginia coal giant Massey Energy, is resigning at the end of the month. Blankenship, whose tenure oversaw the worst mining disaster in forty years that left twenty-nine dead, will receive a golden parachute, much to the dismay of angry shareholders and critics.
The golden parachute provides Blankenship with $2.7 million upon retirement (and an additional $10 million on July 1, 2011), a free house for life, millions more in deferred compensation, health insurance coverage, a secretary, and a 1965 Blue Chevy truck.
Not too shabby for a man who had a reputation for ignoring safety concerns in favor of more coal production. A recent investigation from the American University School of Communication reports that Massey had the worst fatality record of mining companies, even before the Upper Big Branch explosion in April. Fifty-four workers have been killed at Massey’s mines since 2000, dozens more than at any other company.
Blankenship’s retirement comes on the heels of a failure in Congress to pass critical mine safety legislation. The U.S. House of Representatives voted 214-193 not to pass the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act (H.R. 6495), which would have empowered the Mine Safety and Health Administration to protect workers from unsafe workplaces, prosecute corporate bad actors, and close dangerous mines. The bill faces a bleaker fate in a Republican-controlled House.
Blankenship had to resign, since he was under fire from both shareholders and workers.
“The fact of the matter is, the company absolutely needs him to leave. You want to say, anything’s worth it because the company has no future with him,” Per W. Olstad, a lawyer with CtW Investment Group, a shareholder group that has pushed for Blankenship to step down, told ABC News. “But it’s an egregious payout. It’s way beyond what he’s earned. Given how destructive his mismanagement has been, he simply does not deserve it.”
Response from labor was a bit more somber.
“The announcement this evening that Massey Energy Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship is retiring at the end of this month 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,” wrote United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts in a press release. “Last spring, in the wake of the needless and senseless deaths at the Upper Big Branch mine, thousands of UMWA members, other union members and supporters marched in Richmond, protesting outside the Massey Energy annual meeting. We called for Mr. Blankenship’s ouster as head of Massey, due to the culture of production first and safety last that he has fostered at Massey. We are gratified that this action has finally occurred.”
The reign of Appalachia’s most powerful coal baron comes to an end. But he hasn’t quite escaped legal proceedings stemming from the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine. Recently, a judge ruled Blankenship must face two lawsuits holding him personally responsible for the lethal explosion.
Blankenship isn’t speaking much to the press these days. However, he told television station WCHS that he just thought it was time to retire and he’s not worried about the Upper Big Branch investigation.
“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,” he said.
The disaster is not behind widow Lorelei Scarbro, who has fought for years to stop Massey’s planned mountaintop removal operation on the Coal River Mountain.
“I know coal companies are in business to make money, but we must no longer be asked to pay such a high price for cheap energy,” she told Business Week. “Under the reign of Don Blankenship, the bodies continue to pile up—from the people drinking poisoned water to the men who have gone into the earth to never see the light of day again.”
Local activists are glad to see Blankenship leave but caution that his resignation means things will improve in West Virginia.
Andrew Munn, an organizer for Climate Ground Zero, a group that has waged a nearly two-year campaign of nonviolent protest against Massey, says Blankenship’s ouster is “certainly a victory in public opinion.” But “until slurry injection stops and mountaintop removal stops, it’s a superficial change.”
Still, criminal investigations are pending and Blankenship has been subpoenaed to appear in Beckley, West Virginia, on December 14. Here’s hoping that Chevy will get him to court.