ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The controversial CEO of coal mine giant Massey Energy issued a surprise announcement tonight. Don Blankenship said in a written statement that he is retiring at the end of the month. The move comes as the Massey board of directors considers selling the company and as Blankenship is expected to testify in a joint state and federal investigation of the deadly April explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia.
NPR's Howard Berkes has been covering that disaster and its aftermath, and he joins us now.
Howard, Don Blankenship is 60 years old. He seemed to have a tight grip on Massey Energy. Why is he leaving now?
HOWARD BERKES: Well, there's the reason he's giving, which is simply this, quote, "It is time for me to move on." That's what he said in the statement, at least, announcing his retirement, and that's all he said, but there could be other reasons. And one hint may be in the fact that the statement was not issued by Blankenship himself but by the company's board of directors instead.
He chaired that board, but there have been unconfirmed reports that he and the board have clashed recently over the board's possible sale of the company. They're exploring that, they've said. He's also been a lightning rod for Massey Energy because of his obsession with coal production and allegations from some of his own miners, from federal regulators, from mine safety experts, from his many critics that he sacrifices safety for the sake of production.
And, in fact, in a second statement from the Massey board tonight, the directors wanted us to know that Blankenship's job as CEO actually ended today, though he doesn't fully retire until the end of the month.
SIEGEL: Well, now, Howard, you were part of a small group of reporters who met with Blankenship two weeks ago today for more than two hours, I gathered. Did he give any hint of this when you saw him?
BERKES: Not in the slightest. I mean, he gave a very vigorous defense of Massey Energy's safety record at that meeting, and he continued to blame the Upper Big Branch mine disaster on natural events - an infusion of natural gas, he described.
He tried to convince the reporters who were there that we shouldn't be looking at Massey Energy. We should be looking at what he suggested was failed and inept federal regulation, not any failures on the part of his company.
But, you know, this is a company that under Don Blankenship's leadership has amassed thousands of safety violations and fines that are now close to $13 million. This, by the way, happened while last year he was paid close to $18 million last year alone. I think, if anything, during that marathon session with Blankenship two weeks ago, he seemed as resolute as ever.
SIEGEL: Well, from all of this, Howard, it sounds at least possible that Mr. Blankenship didn't jump so much as he was pushed. Is there any indication of that?
BERKES: So far, no. But this just happened. But I think, you know, there's been a lot of pressure building on this company. There's a shareholders lawsuit pending against Blankenship himself and the board for allegedly failing to honor commitments to improve safety at its mines.
As you mentioned, you know, Blankenship is scheduled to testify in two weeks in the Upper Big Branch investigation. The company is the subject of a federal criminal investigation. All that's an awful lot of baggage if, indeed, this company is up for sale. And it's up for sale in part because its value has plummeted in the wake of the Upper Big Branch disaster. So there could be other reasons for his departure other than simply he decided it's time to go.
SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Howard.
BERKES: You're welcome, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Howard Berkes with the news that the controversial CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, has written a statement that he's retiring at the end of the month, and the company says he's actually off the job right now.
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