Chris Hamilton, senior vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association, said the announcement of Blankenship's retirement was "unreal," but declined further comment.
Bill Raney, the association's president, said the retirement came as a complete surprise to him, and that it doesn't mean Blankenship will not continue working in the coal business in some other capacity. Raney called Blankenship one of the most "dynamic, intelligent and capable" leaders the industry has ever had.
Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, noted that Blankenship frequently criticized his group over the years, but that Massey never dropped its membership.
"His criticism was mostly directed at me, and I'm OK with that," Roberts said. "From my point of view, I wish him well.
Roberts said Blankenship grew up poor and "rose to great heights" as Massey's CEO.
"He is such a controversial figure," Roberts said. "He has such strong opinions. He's willing to say things other corporate leaders won't. I hope he will devote his time and resources to making things better for West Virginia and the people in our state."
Blankenship, 60, is a Mingo County native and Marshall University graduate. He left the area for a time, working as an accountant for food companies in the Midwest.
He returned to the state in the 1980s, joining Massey's Rawl Sales and Processing Co. at about the time the firm launched a campaign to rid itself of the national coal contract with the UMW. Blankenship's feud with the union continues to this day, with UMW President Cecil Roberts frequently saying Blankenship "has caused more suffering to more people in the Appalachian region than any one human being I can think of."
In a statement issued Friday night, the UMW's Roberts said Blankenship's retirement "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.
"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," the union chief said. "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."
Blankenship's battle with the UMW seemingly continued over the past year, as he and Massey have waged a campaign to discredit the Upper Big Branch investigation being conducted by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, now headed by longtime UMW safety director Joe Main.
Blankenship's resignation comes just two weeks after the coal executive hosted about a dozen media representatives for an unusual meeting at Massey's regional headquarters in Boone County. Blankenship spent most of the meeting criticizing MSHA and encouraging reporters to investigate the agency's actions.
On Dec. 14, Blankenship is scheduled to testify under oath before state and federal investigators looking into the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Staff writer Eric Eyre contributed to this report.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.