The move comes amid persistent rumors that Richmond, Va.-based Massey will be sold to another mining firm, and as the company struggles to recover from the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in April, which killed 29 workers and was the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than 40 years.
In a prepared statement issued at about 6 p.m., Massey's board of directors gave no clear reason for the move, but said that Baxter Phillips, Massey's president, would take over as chairman and CEO.
"After almost three decades at Massey, it is time for me to move on," Blankenship said in the company's news release.
"Baxter and I have worked together for 28 years,l and he will provide the company great executive leadership," Blankenship said. "Most of all, I want to thank the members of Massey Energy, whose hard work supports not only their own families, but also contributes greatly to the entire community of Central Appalachia."
Phillips said, "I want to thank Don for all he has done to build Massey Energy. I also want to thank the board for giving me the opportunity to succeed him as CEO. This is a strong and successful coal company, and I will work hard to match and surpass its record of success."
Blankenship has been with Massey since 1982, and served as the company's top executive since 2000.
In that time, the company went public and has grown dramatically -- from 3,600 employees a decade ago to 7,300 today. Annual revenue has nearly tripled in that time, to $2.7 billion in 2009.
"I am deeply grateful to Don for the decisive leadership he has provided to Massey, and we appreciate his success in building this company," said Bobby Inman, the lead independent director on Massey's board. "We all wish him even greater success in the future."
Blankenship's tenure has been marked by bitter disputes with the United Mine Workers union, a series of workplace and environmental disasters, and controversial political involvement that has increasingly drawn negative national attention for Massey.
In the past two years alone, Massey has paid the largest fines ever for a coal-mining death case and for water pollution violations by a mining operator -- $4.5 million for the fatal Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire and $20 million in a water pollution deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"Let's pray that a change in leadership leads to a change in attitude," said Bruce Stanley, a Pittsburgh lawyer who represented the two widows from the Aracoma fire and also sued Massey on behalf of businessman Hugh Caperton, whose lawsuit alleging Massey drove him out of business went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cindy Rank, longtime mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said Blankenship was a bit of a mixed bag for the environmental community. Massey's mining practices damage the environment, she said, but Blankenship's outspoken nature drew more public attention to issues like mountaintop removal.
"He was like a caricature of all that was wrong with the industry today," Rank said.