CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship is expected to honor an agreement to testify this month about the nation's worst coal mine disaster in decades despite his sudden retirement plans, investigators said Saturday.
The Virginia-based coal company announced late Friday that Blankenship, who has been chairman and chief executive since 2000, will retire effective Dec. 31. The modern-day coal baron who made millions for investors while turning countless neighbors into enemies over mining's effects on the environment has been with Massey since 1982 in a variety of roles.
Investigators want to question Blankenship about the April 5 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 and injured two. Unlike other Massey employees, who have refused to speak with investigators, Blankenship reached an agreement with state investigators to testify on Dec. 14. The interview will be closed to the public.
"My team of investigators need to talk to Mr. Blankenship," West Virginia mining chief C.A. Phillips said Saturday. "I hope he comes, but he may not."
Blankenship did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Saturday.
Phillips said he doesn't expect the state's investigation to change with Blankenship's departure. Neither does J. Davitt McAteer, who was asked by former Gov. Joe Manchin to conduct a separate investigation into the worst mining accident since 1970.
"The investigation is into the accident and not Mr. Blankenship," said McAteer, who directed the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration.
A 60-year-old millionaire who rose from obscure beginnings, Blankenship oversaw an ongoing plan to expand the production of Appalachian coal for growing Asian markets, but leaves behind a company badly shaken by the April 5 blast.
Blankenship has dealt quietly with state investigators, but the former accountant has lashed out at MSHA over the way it regulates and enforces the nation's mine safety laws.
McAteer said he hopes Blankenship's departure will improve cooperation between investigators and Massey. He said cooperation to date has been "less than ideal."
Last Month Blankenship reiterated his belief that MSHA's ordered changes to the mine's ventilation plan contributed to the Upper Big Branch explosion. MSHA investigators have said a buildup of coalbed methane and coal dust might have contributed to the blast.
A call to an MSHA spokeswoman was not immediately returned Saturday.
Massey's board named Baxter F. Phillips Jr., to replace Blankenship as chief executive. Phillips was the company's president. Board member retired Adm. Bobby Inman will serve as Massey's nonexecutive chairman. He has been a director since 1985.
Phillips has been with Massey since 1981. McAteer and C.A. Phillips, who's not related the company's newly named CEO, said they had not dealt with him.
"He served in the shadow of Mr. Blankenship," McAteer said.
News of Blankenship's departure was greeted with surprise by those in the industry, and joy from environmentalists and residents who live near Massey surface operations in West Virginia and have been trying to halt the company's use of mountaintop removal mining to mine coal.
Mike Chapman, whose uncle Kenny Chapman died in the Upper Big Branch explosion, said he hated to see Blankenship leave.
"I think he's good for the coal business," said Chapman, whose brother works at a Massey surface mine. "He's a very, very smart man when it comes to the coal business."
Chapman said he wondered if Blankenship's sudden departure had to do with talk of attempts to sell Massey.
Recent reports suggest that Massey is a possible takeover target for rivals such as Alpha Natural Resources and global steel conglomerate ArcelorMittal SA.
Massey is the nation's fourth-largest coal producer by revenue. It operates 19 mining complexes in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.
"Massey might do better without Don," Chapman said. "Then again, Don has made that company what it is today."