By Tim Huber
The Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When 29 men died in a single, powerful explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine a year ago, the tragedy stunned the nation -- but the aftermath was stunning too, both for its seismic impact on major players in the coal industry and for the absence of any sweeping reforms.
To the people in coal country, what's happened to mine owner Massey Energy is downright mind-boggling: "King of coal" Don Blankenship has been dethroned -- pushed out with a take-it-or-leave it retirement package -- and the company he ruled with an iron will for more than a decade may soon vanish in a $7.1 billion buyout.
If there is any good to come from the Upper Big Branch tragedy, retired union coal miner Danny Vanoy figures it's the end of staunchly anti-union Massey and the disappearance of its former chief executive officer.
"They put the coal before safety,'' says Vanoy of Dorothy, a community a few miles from the mine that blew up in Montcoal last April 5. Vanoy spent 30 years underground working at union mines.
Blankenship's multimillion-dollar campaign donations and his political dabbling, along with his eight-figure paydays, helped make him the U.S. industry's best known coal executive and a household name in West Virginia.
The Richmond, Va.-based company never rivaled coal giants such as Peabody Energy in size, but it dominated the industry in notoriety.
Under Blankenship, Massey had become a $6 billion company by the time Upper Big Branch exploded, big enough to make the S&P 500 and outbid rivals to buy Virginia and Kentucky mine operator Cumberland Resources for $960 million.
The Wall Street Journal and Rolling Stone profiled Blankenship; the magazine called him "The Dark Lord of Coal Country.''
His campaign contributions to one state Supreme Court justice and his friendship with another played a crucial role in a lawsuit against Massey that was ultimately heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The board's lead director, Bobby Inman, stood by Blankenship as the company faced criticism in the days after the disaster. But on Dec. 3 he gave the CEO a final offer: Retire by 10 p.m. and get $12 million, according to the letter filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Blankenship was given a consulting contract, office and secretary but appears to have left West Virginia and hasn't responded to repeated requests for an interview since his forced departure.
"I would not have predicted that,'' said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, who has known Blankenship for decades and been among his harshest critics.
"He was the coal baron of the modern era ...,'' Roberts said.
Upper Big Branch punched holes in Massey's seemingly impenetrable armor. Civil and criminal investigations into the explosion are pending.
Just a few days after rescuers carried the last body from the mine, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration set out to clean up the industry. Many of the targeted mines were operated by Massey.
At one, MSHA inspectors caught a crew operating without ventilation equipment to draw away explosive gases and dust. At another, they found so many problems they filed an unprecedented lawsuit to shut the mine down.
And the trend continues: Last month, MSHA cited Massey for more than 80 safety violations at several operations -- nearly half of the nationwide total in the monthly "impact inspections'' for February.
By early December, Massey's board decided the company needed a change of leadership and Blankenship was gone.