Don Blankenship, the former Massey Energy executive whom many hold accountable for the explosion that killed 29 West Virginia coal miners, virtually vanished from public view a year ago this week. But he's kept a toe in the mining business and may be angling to raise his profile.
Public records show that Blankenship has incorporated a new venture in Kentucky. Paperwork for McCoy Coal Group Inc. of Belfry, Ky., has been on file since January, though, and it has yet to seek a single mining permit, says Kentucky Energy and Environment spokesman Dick Brown.
Blankenship was pressured into retiring last December amid the fallout from the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades.
He is listed as McCoy's president and may be living in Tennessee. A person who answered a call for Blankenship on Thursday said he could not come to the phone.
Attorney Gregory Blackburn of South Williamson, Ky., is listed in documents as Blankenship's agent, but Blackburn's secretary said his involvement was limited to the incorporation. Blackburn is not retained or employed by McCoy Coal, she said.
The incorporation alone is enough to outrage the United Mine Workers of America, which called Blankenship's maneuvering "a travesty."
"Don Blankenship belongs in jail, not in a position to put yet more miners' lives at risk," said UMWA spokesman Phil Smith.
In October, the union issued a report calling Massey a rogue corporation and accusing it of "industrial homicide" at the Upper Big Branch mine, now owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.
The UMWA, long an adversary of the union-busting former CEO, said at least 18 Massey managers should be prosecuted, starting with Blankenship.
Blankenship had long been a public figure and household name in West Virginia, engaging in public debates with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. over global warming, lavishing millions on conservative political candidates and accusing the former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration of lying to Congress.
He was known for micromanaging his mines, requiring workers at Upper Big Branch, for example, to fax him production reports every half-hour.
But the April 2010 tragedy there broadened his name recognition. Just a week before his abrupt departure, Rolling Stone magazine published a profile labeling him "the dark lord of coal country."
Since then, Blankenship has kept a low profile. By June, Massey was gone, too, swallowed in a $7.1 billion deal with Alpha.
Blankenship re-emerged in September, when he was listed as speaker at the Cincinnati gathering of the Southern Coals Conference. It's unclear whether he gave that speech. A conference organizer didn't immediately return a message.
Under his $12 million severance package with Massey, however, Blankenship was barred from competing with his former employer for two years.
Alpha spokesman Ted Pile said the company is not aware of Blankenship's current activities but "expects him to honor that agreement."
"While the agreement was, of course, with Massey," Pile said, "it now applies to Alpha and its affiliates."
Earlier this week, Alpha reached a historic settlement with federal prosecutors over the Upper Big Branch disaster. It agreed to pay nearly $210 million to clear itself of criminal liability for Massey's actions, bankroll cutting-edge safety research and technology and wipe the slate clean with MSHA.
The deal pays off fines for years of violations at Upper Big Branch and other former Massey operations.
MSHA said the root cause of the Upper Big Branch explosion was Massey's "systematic, intentional and aggressive efforts" to conceal life-threatening problems, noting managers went so far as to maintain two sets of pre-shift inspection books -- an accurate one for itself, and a fake one for regulators.
The agency didn't immediately comment Thursday on whether it has any authority to keep Blankenship out of the mining business or whether it would give special scrutiny to any new operations he might open.
In 2009, Massey and subsidiary Aracoma Coal Co. agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties related to a January 2006 fire that killed two miners at the Alma No. 1 mine.
Don Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfield got lost as they tried to flee the sprawling underground Logan County mine. Their widows had settled a wrongful death lawsuit for undisclosed terms in 2008.
"Sadly," said plaintiffs' attorney Bruce Stanley, "aggressive prosecution against upper management in the Aracoma case might have spared us the horror of UBB."
Associated Press writers Lawrence Messina in Charleston, W.Va., and Dylan Lovan in Louisville, Ky., contributed to this report.