Study Shows Surface Coal Miners Are Exposed To Toxic Dust That Causes Black Lung Tuesday, Dec 10 2019 

Appalachian surface coal miners are consistently overexposed to toxic silica dust, according to new research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and surface mine dust contains more silica than does dust in underground coal mines. 

The research released Tuesday is the first to specifically analyze long-term data on exposure to toxic silica dust for workers at surface mines. The work reveals that while attention has been trained on a surge in disease among underground coal miners, surface miners are similarly at risk of contracting coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. 

Black lung disease has been identified in coal miners in every coal-mining state at both surface and underground mines. NIOSH researchers were specifically interested in surface miners’ exposure because those mines produce the most coal and, in 2017, twice as many miners worked at surface mines compared to underground mines. 

Researchers analyzed 54,040 coal dust samples taken on surface mines between 1982 and 2017 to determine the percent of that coal dust that was silica, and found that the level of silica was above the permissible limit in 15 percent of those samples. Silica dust comes from quartz in the rock layers near coal seams, and it is significantly more harmful to lung tissue than coal dust alone. 

“The exposure to coal mine dust declined over time,” said lead researcher and industrial hygienist Brent Doney. “However … when you look at the percentage of silica that was in those samples, that didn’t drop.” 

After decades of successful reduction in black lung disease through safety controls in coal mines, black lung disease has been on the rise among coal miners for the last two decades. Central Appalachia has seen a marked increase in the most severe form of black lung, known as progressive massive fibrosis. A recent investigation from NPR and PBS Frontline found that federal regulators and the mining industry knew that exposure to silica dust was a major factor contributing to the surge in disease but failed to act to protect miners’ health. 

The surge in disease is putting strain on the already-indebted federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, and as younger miners become disabled due to black lung, the strain on Appalachian mining communities continues to grow. 

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is a particularly novel finding,” NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney said. “The evidence is very clear. We know that silica and mine dust are toxic, and we have the technology to suppress it, and yet coal miners are still exposed to way too much of it. So from a public health perspective, there’s ample evidence to suggest that further safeguards are necessary.”

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which regulates coal mining, issued in August a request for information to determine whether additional regulation of silica was necessary, and if so, how best to proceed. Some critics of the administration argued the move was too little given what is already known about silica’s role in disease. 

 

Portal 31: How A Closed Mine Opened New Prospects For One Coal Town Monday, Nov 11 2019 

Portal 31Devin Mefford is sitting in the squat metal buggy of a modified mantrip, the train-like shuttle coal miners use to travel underground. Mefford is dressed for work, in a hardhat and a navy shirt and pants with lime green reflective stripes.

It’s a uniform his father and grandfather — both Kentucky coal miners — would be familiar with.

Mefford does go into a mine every day, but not for the coal. He’s the tour guide at Portal 31, a train ride through a once-operational coal mine in Harlan County.

“People are amazed,” the 21-year-old says, gesturing to the dark mine entrance behind him.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Portal 31 tour guide Devin Mefford.

Portal 31 first opened in 1917. A subsidiary of U.S. Steel operated the mine and built the nearby community of Lynch, which was at the time the world’s largest coal camp. At its height, 10,000 people lived in the community, including a diverse immigrant population from more than 30 countries.

When it closed its doors in 1963, Portal 31 had produced more than 120 million tons of coal. More than 40 years later, in 2009, the mine reopened — this time to tourists.

For 35 minutes visitors ride the rail cars, often in pitch darkness, on a journey not just through the mine, but back in time. The drawling voice of an actor playing a miner named Mike Mackenzie, or Mac, narrates.

“We’re going to visit the miners and see how it’s changed over the years,” he says. “First stop, 1919.”

An animatronic miner materializes out of the darkness. Another actor gives voice to an Italian immigrant named Joseph, who recounts what it was like for the thousands of people who came to work in the mines in the early 1900s. Next to his lifelike form is a robotic mule and chirping canary.

“The mine she’s cool and safe,” he says. “You will see to that won’t you cantante. As long as I can hear your song I know I’m safe.”

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A scene from inside Portal 31.

Visitors hear what it was like to mine for coal before and after mechanization. They also learn about Harlan County’s bloody conflicts over union organizing.

“This is a story that never needs to die. It’s a story that needs to be told,” Nick Sturgill, director of Portal 31 said. “People need to understand what these guys went through, but they also need to understand how prosperous a place this was at one time — what coal not only did for this city, but for this region, for this country, for this entire world.”

He said about 5,000 visitors from around the world take the ride under Black Mountain each year. It’s a bright spot for Lynch, which today is home to just a few hundred residents.

Like many former mining communities, in recent years Lynch and neighboring towns have turned their sights on attracting tourists. It’s often a costly endeavor, but in recent years the federal government has expanded its support for repurposing old mine lands as new economic engines, including to draw new visitors.

Federal Role

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Portal 31 was part of that effort. In 2018, the attraction was awarded a $2.55 million Abandoned Mine Land Pilot grant. The funding will be used to update the ride as well as nearby historic buildings for use as retail and office space. Some of the money is slated to go to a new parking lot and scenic overlook at nearby Black Mountain.

“The main outlook on the AML grant is to really just be a shot in the arm for all of Lynch as well as Harlan County,” Sturgill said.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Central Appalachia has thousands of acres of abandoned mine sites that can threaten local economies and people’s health and safety. In 1977, Congress created the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program to clean them up. The funds come from fees paid by active coal mine operators on each ton of coal mined. The fee and authorization of the AML Program is set to expire in 2021 without Congressional action.

The AML Program chiefly provides funding for reclamation.  In the last five years, federal support has grown for a slightly different approach — going beyond merely sealing mine portals and treating polluted water to supporting projects that could grow local economies.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Appalachian Regional Commission in 2015 began investing in coal-impacted communities through Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER Initiative. Congress appropriated money from the U.S. Treasury to create the AML Pilot program in 2016, aimed at not only boosting reclamation work in the highest-need Appalachian states, but promoting projects that spur economic development and growth on abandoned mine lands.

“There’s significant economic benefits that communities can get from embracing mine reclamation,” said Joey James, with the Reclaiming Appalachia Coalition, which advocates for sustainable reclamation investment. “There’s also opportunities to repower some of these sites that were once the lifeblood of these communities.”

James, who is a senior strategist at West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies, said projects with federal backing can attract other investors looking to make an impact.

“While these federal programs are really, really important, and we need to have them, I think what the AML Pilot program does is it offers an opportunity to develop enterprises on former mine sites that might pull private capital and create models for redeveloping and reusing mine sites that won’t rely entirely on federal funding,” he said.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Portal 31 attraction takes visitors into an underground coal mine.

Another federal proposal, the RECLAIM Act, would accelerate reclamation of abandoned mine land by dispersing $1 billion of Abandoned Mine Land funds over a 5-year period with an eye toward economic development. That bill has not been passed by Congress despite bipartisan support.

Critics argue the millions poured into these programs have failed to produce the desired outcomes. Some efforts planting lavender or apple trees on old strip mines have floundered. James said it’s important to objectively assess the effectiveness of projects receiving federal funding.

“If states are investing in projects that aren’t providing that opportunity in the future, we need to think of how we can be better,” he said.

Growing Pride

Back inside Portal 31, the mantrip snakes its way back toward daylight.

A group of visitors from South Carolina is milling around in the small gift shop. They’re visiting the area on a mission trip. A gaggle of middle school-aged kids excitedly share what they learned.

“We learned how difficult it was and how dangerous it is for them,” one says. Another adds his amazement that Portal 31 holds the record for most coal mined in a single day — a record set in 1923.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Devin Mefford emerges from Portal 31.

Mefford, the guide, takes questions at the end of the tour. He says the most common one he’s asked is if coal is coming back.

“In all honesty, coal mining is a thing of the past, and it’s sad to say that for small towns like mine,” he says.

But he adds that makes Portal 31, and federal investment into both preserving and showcasing Kentucky’s coal heritage, even more important.

“Every person in this community deserves to have something to be proud of, and that’s what we do here,” he said.

Murray Energy’s Bankruptcy Could Bring Collapse Of Coal Miners’ Pensions Monday, Nov 4 2019 

The recent bankruptcy of Ohio Valley coal giant Murray Energy has renewed fears about the already shaky financial foundations of the pension plan that tens of thousands of miners and their families depend upon.

The seismic collapse of yet another coal employer has lawmakers from the region renewing their push to fix the United Mine Workers pension fund, and has even raised broader concerns about pensions for a range of other trades.

Murray Energy has a substantial footprint across the region. It is also the last major employer contributing to the UMWA pension plan. In its bankruptcy filing, the company reports $2.7 billion in debt and more than $8 billion in obligations under various pension and benefit plans. More information will likely come out as the bankruptcy court takes up the matter.

IMG_0129 2Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Bob Murray speaking at an event in October, 2019.

Bankruptcy proceedings often take months, and it’s not yet clear if the company will be relieved of its pension obligations. UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith said if recent history is any guide, that is a likely outcome.

“We don’t think any company should be able to be relieved of its responsibility to any retirees, whether they’re in the coal industry or not,” Smith said. “But it has happened in the coal industry time after time after time.”

Smith said if the bankruptcy court relieves Murray’s pension obligations, that could be another $6 billion loss for the UMWA retirement fund.

The UMWA health and retirement fund covers the benefits of retirees whose employers went out of business before 2007. The plan was already facing insolvency by 2022, largely due to the industry’s decline in production and a wave of bankruptcies. Smith said now that Murray Energy has filed for Chapter 11 protection, the fund could become insolvent by next year.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts said much of the problem lies in how bankruptcy courts treat workers’ concerns.

“Why should workers stand in line last? Why should it be beneficial to a CEO or CFO to file bankruptcy?” he said. “They ran the company into the ground, they get rich, the workers lose their health care. Sometimes they lose their job. Sometimes they lose their pensions. That needs to be dealt with.”

Murray Energy is among nearly a dozen coal companies to go bankrupt during the Trump administration, despite the repeated claims of a “coal comeback.” Some lawmakers worry that the combined impact could cause a domino effect for other multi-employer pensions across the country.

Virgil2Becca Schimmel | Ohio Valley ReSource

Retired Kentucky miner Virgil Stanley at a UMWA rally for pension protections.

‘Economic contagion’

Insolvent plans fall to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, or PBGC, which is a federal backstop for pension plans. Lawmakers from around the Ohio Valley warn that the fund is also already at risk, and it would be in far more financial trouble if it became responsible for the UMWA plan.

Last year a bipartisan group of lawmakers served on the Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multi-employer Pensions. The group was tasked with finding a solution to pension problems affecting a range of workers including teamsters, coal miners, iron workers, and bakers and confectioners.

Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican on the joint committee, warned at a field hearing last year that if even one of the larger plans becomes insolvent that could put the PBGC at risk as well.

“That wave of bankruptcy has the potential to create an economic contagion effect,” Portman said. “In other words, it would spread around our economy.”

IMG_1076Aaron Payne | Ohio Valley ReSource

A union miner at the rally for pension protection.

But despite the shared concern, the committee missed a self-imposed deadline to come up with a solution and disbanded at the end of the year.

The UMWA’s Smith said more than $1 billion goes into local economies every year from health care benefits and pensions that are paid directly to retirees. More than $130 million flows into Kentucky alone.

Simon Haeder is an assistant professor of public policy at Penn State University. He said shoring up the UMWA pension plan would have been a lot less expensive and more manageable if Congress had started to address the “inevitable” issue much earlier.

“Coal miners are one of those probably worst-case scenarios here,” he said, “because the balance between people paying into the system and people taking out of the system is so out of whack.”

Haeder said the miners’ pension problems also raise questions about whether people can rely on these pension systems in the future. He said the decline in union membership and the complex actions of bankruptcy courts have given employers an edge over the interests of workers when a business goes under.

“Bankruptcy law and bankruptcy court will certainly side with employers much more than they will side with employees,” he said.

A Legislative Fix?

Sen. Joe Manchin and other coal-area lawmakers introduced the American Miners Act to try to shore up the shaky UMWA pension. The West Virginia Democrat’s bill would transfer some money from interest accrued on the federal Abandoned Mine Land fund – which is used to clean up old mining sites – into the mine workers’ pension plan. It would not take money directly from the fund.

Manchin is attaching the American Miners Act to a spending bill that keeps the federal government running. He said most of the pension checks are for $600 a month or less and many of those are going to widows who depend on that money for basic living expenses.

“When coal companies go bankrupt coal miners benefits are at the bottom of the priority list,” Manchin said.

The bill would also restore a tax on coal used to fund the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which Congress had allowed to be reduced by half last year. Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey is a co-sponsor on the bill.

“I won’t stop fighting until we’ve secured the promised pensions and an extension of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund for coal miners and their families,” Casey said. “I hope Congressional Republicans will join our mission.”

The Senate bill does not yet have a Republican co-sponsor but there is general bipartisan support for action on the miners’ pensions. In the House two pending bills propose a similar funding method to shore up the UMWA fund. Republican Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia is the lead sponsor on one of those.

Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia proposes a version that also addresses the health care benefits of retirees whose companies went bankrupt last year and have been or will be relieved of those obligations by a bankruptcy court. Both bills have passed out of committee.

But of course one Republican’s voice will matter most, and that is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

McConnell’s Call

McConnell had previously postponed action on miners’ pensions by splitting an earlier proposal to address both retirement funds and health benefits. McConnell introduced his own version in 2017, which provided for miners’ health benefits but avoided dealing with pensions.

In an emailed statement, McConnell said he’s concerned about the insolvency issues facing a number of multi-employer pension plans, and that he supports finding a bipartisan solution for pension reform.

It’s not clear when or if the majority leader will take up the issue of coal miners’ pensions or healthcare benefits.

manchin mcconnellU.S. Senate

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

The Miners Act and other similar bills have attracted criticism from fiscal conservatives such as the Heritage Foundation. Heritage calls the proposal a “bail out” that would do nothing to “fix the root of the problem” with the large pension plans.

Manchin said he will attach the American Miners Act to every vehicle possible in Congress in the hope that McConnell will agree to take action.

“And Senator McConnell I know he’s concerned about other pensions, we’re all concerned about other pensions, but this is on the front burner now,” Manchin said, adding that if the miners’ pension plan falls it will likely not fall alone. “When this happens, everything else will tumble and snowball with it.”

ReSource reporter Brittany Patterson contributed to this story.

Blackjewel Miners Get More Of Their Pay As Labor Dept. Acts Against Bankrupt Company Thursday, Oct 24 2019 

Coal miners who went without pay when mining company Blackjewel declared bankruptcy this June are one step closer to receiving lost wages. The checks come weeks after some of the miners ended a long-running protest, and months after the federal Department of Labor first intervened to allege the company violated labor laws in the month before it folded.

Rumors of a deal circulated early this month, and in consent orders filed in U.S. district courts in Kentucky and Virginia, Blackjewel committed to pay more than $5 million to miners. 

The bankruptcy drew widespread attention this summer when a group of Blackjewel miners blocked a train full of coal to protest unpaid wages. The protest lasted 59 days and ended after the last remaining miners found work or had to return to other obligations 

According to a press release from Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, more than 600 coal miners from Kentucky’s Black Mountain and Lone Mountain mines will receive pay following agreements between the coal company and the Department of Labor.

“This means a whole lot.” said Stacy Rowe, wife of former Blackjewel miner Chris Rowe. “Getting this check, it’s going to pay off some of the bills we owe, and it’s going to get us started when we start driving.” 

Chris Rowe has taken a job as a truck driver since the bankruptcy. Blackjewel owes Chris about $6,000, Stacy said. 

“Today is a great day and one we’ve longed to see come,” said Harlan County Judge Executive Dan Mosley in the release. “My heart is overjoyed for these hardworking folks who took a stand in a professional way to say workers shouldn’t be treated this way.”

“Although we’re certainly relieved that these miners are finally getting paid, it took three and a half months, and that’s far too long,” said Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney who is representing Blackjewel miners in ongoing litigation. 

Pillersdorf says the miners will continue to pursue additional claims against Blackjewel as well as its former CEO. The Kentucky Labor Cabinet said it will continue to pursue litigation against the company for failure to pay a performance bond. 

It is unclear whether the checks scheduled to be delivered to Blackjewel miners will include compensation for lost health care benefits, child support payments, or paid time off.

New Kentucky Memorial Honors Miners Who Died Of Black Lung Sunday, Oct 13 2019 

bl memorialCoal miners and family members of miners who have died from black lung disease gathered Sunday in Whitesburg, Kentucky, to dedicate a new memorial to miners who perished from the workplace disease. 

While Appalachian coal country has several memorials to mining disasters, this is believed to be the first memorial to remember the thousands of men and women who have died from black lung.

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

A dedication service for the new black lung memorial in Whitesburg, KY.

The engraved black stone memorial stands at Riverside Park in Whitesburg and will list the names of some 200 Letcher County coal miners who died of the disease.

William McCool was the first person to suggest the memorial after his father died of the disease.  

“You know, let’s give these men the honor they deserve. Let’s not forget them,” he said.

The total number of coal miners who have died from the disease is unknown, but the Department of Labor says more than a thousand coal miners die of black lung each year. Black lung cases are surging in the Ohio Valley, and health officials say about one in five experienced miners in central Appalachian has some form of the disease. 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

The memorial lists hundreds of local miners who have died from black lung.

Experts say the epidemic is getting worse because miners are working in thinner seams of coal, and are exposed to higher levels of silica, or quartz dust, from the surrounding rock layers, which is more toxic than coal dust alone. 

McCool also suffers from black lung. He expects his name will be on the stone memorial one day, too.

“It would be a blessing to be with them boys,” he said.

Former Blackjewel Miners End Railroad Blockade In Kentucky Thursday, Sep 26 2019 

The nearly two-month blockade of a Kentucky railroad track is coming to an end as unpaid coal miners end their protest in order to take new jobs, start classes, or move away from their coal-dependent communities. 

When coal company Blackjewel abruptly declared bankruptcy in July, it left some 1100 Appalachian coal miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia without pay. On July 29, five miners blockaded a train full of coal preparing to leave a Blackjewel facility in Harlan County, Kentucky. The miners’ rallying cry was “No Pay, No Coal.” 

But after 59 days on the tracks, the protest is coming to an end. 

Felicia Cress is married to a former Blackjewel miner, and has been at the protest since the first day. 

miners signsSydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Felicia Cress on the first day of the miners’ protest.

“This happened because we got shafted, which happens all the time,” Cress said. “You got these rich people that s*** on these poor people, and people just overlook it.”

She said even though her family has to move on, the relationships forged through the protest will stay with her. 

It was a bad situation that made us come together, stay there day and night, through the rain, through the blazing sun,” she said. “We have now friendships, you know, we have a bond.” 

Cress’ husband is currently looking for work. She said her bank has threatened to foreclose on her home unless she finds money for her mortgage payment by Saturday. 

more miners on traxSydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Miners assemble on railroad tracks to block a shipment of coal from a Blackjewel mine.

Hundreds of Blackjewel miners in Kentucky and Virginia have still not been paid. But the protesters can claim some important victories.

West Virginia miners received owed wages earlier this monthThe protest drew international attention, helped win miners a portion of their back pay, and highlighted the state’s failure to collect bond payments from companies like Blackjewel, as the law requires. 

The train load of coal the miners blocked will remain where it is until a ruling from a West Virginia bankruptcy judge. That ruling is expected in October. 

 

Sanders Visits Coal States On Heels Of Climate Plan Release Friday, Aug 23 2019 

Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders will visit Kentucky and West Virginia just days after releasing his plan to address climate change.

Sanders is scheduled to speak in Louisville, Kentucky, Sunday and in Morgantown, West Virginia, Monday. 

His detailed climate plan released Thursday calls climate change “the single greatest challenge facing our country.” 

Like many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Sanders supports a “Green New Deal” to move the country from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2030. 

Sanders’ climate plan also prioritizes help for those who worked in fossil fuel industries, such as coal miners who would be displaced by that transition. 

Jesse Wright, WVPB

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders during a 2016 campaign stop in Morgantown, WV.

“Fossil fuel workers have powered the country for more than a century, working in dangerous and precarious jobs to provide for their families,” the plan states. “When we are in the White House, compensation and assistance for displaced workers will come first; the balance sheets of fossil fuel corporations and billionaire investors will come last.”

The plan calls for $16.3 trillion in direct public investment and claims 20 million jobs would be created while solving the climate crisis. 

More than $1 trillion would be used to assist displaced miners and other workers. Sanders’ plan would provide up to five years of unemployment insurance for displaced workers and guarantee new jobs would pay comparable wages. Displaced miners would be eligible for housing assistance, job training and health care. 

Chris Woolery is with the eastern Kentucky nonprofit the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, or MACED. He said Sanders’ proposal is comprehensive and speaks to the challenges communities in eastern Kentucky are facing. 

“We are in the middle of a transition, whether we want it or not,” he said. “I think the most important thing is how do we manage that? And how do we care for the people that are most affected?”

Carl Shoupe, a retired Kentucky coal miner and energy transition activist, said Sanders’ emphasis on ensuring a “just transition” for those who worked in fossil fuel industries has also opened the door for other Democratic presidential hopefuls to do the same. 

“By Bernie’s tremendous efforts in these issues, you know, he’s got a lot of people talking about this now,” he said. “We’re just excited that people are talking about this just transition.”

Sanders’ plan faces opposition from both the mining industry and labor. The head of the United Mine Workers of America calls its goals “almost impossible.”

Sanders is not the first candidate to outline ways to address the needs of coal-impacted communities as the country shifts away from fossil fuels.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and former hedge fund manager and activist Tom Steyer have put forward in-depth policy suggestions to address coal miners displaced by the transition away from fossil fuels. Other candidates, including Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, include suggestions in their climate proposals that would support displaced workers and coal-impacted communities. 

 

Protesting Blackjewel Miners To Get Some Overdue Pay From Bankruptcy Sale  Tuesday, Aug 6 2019 

More than a thousand coal miners left unpaid by the abrupt bankruptcy of Blackjewel mining could soon be getting some – but not all – of the money they are owed. 

Dozens of miners have staged a week-long protest on railroad tracks in Kentucky’s Harlan County, blocking delivery of a load of coal from a Blackjewel mine and demanding their pay.  

A federal court overseeing the Blackjewel bankruptcy Tuesday concluded the sales of the mining company’s properties and equipment, and buyers have put money toward paying some of the roughly $11.8 million in pay and benefits due to miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, most of whom have been without pay for a month. 

“That won’t pay off all of the wages that are due,” labor attorney Sam Petsonk said, “but it’ll be a good downpayment.” 

Petsonk, an attorney with West Virginia’s Mountain State Justice, is representing miners from Blackjewel’s eastern division. He said miners will likely get some back wages but full compensation is still far from guaranteed. 

Miners_On_Tracks-12Curren Sheldon

Miners and supporters hold a meeting along the railroad tracks.

“So additional wages and penalties damages that are owed to the workers will have to come through further litigation,” he said. 

Presiding Judge Frank Volk approved the sale of the mines in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia. A proposal by Contura Energy for Blackjewel’s two Wyoming surface mines remains unresolved pending federal government approval. 

Under an agreement by Kopper Glo Mining LLC to purchase Blackjewel’s Lone Mountain and Black Mountain mines in Kentucky, the company committed to set aside $450,000 to pay former employees owed wages. In addition, the company said it would provide up to $550,000 in additional money to the Kentucky miners from the royalties of the operations at Lone and Black Mountain mining complexes.

The company agreed to pay $6,350,000 cash for the properties as well as royalties for six years totaling more than $9 million. Kopper Glo also agreed to assume responsibility for some bonding liabilities. 

IMG_4328Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Blackjewel miners and supporters enter the federal courthouse in Charleston, WV.

Employees at West Virginia’s Pax mine are likely to get their full back wages. Buyer Contura Energy, based in Tennessee, said it will create a $5 million fund to pay the employees what they’re owed. 

Rhino Energy LLC paid $850,000 cash and agreed to pay $208,000 in royalties over one year for some of Blackjewel’s Virginia mines. 

Requests for comment to both Kopper Glo and Rhino Energy were not immediately answered. 

It appears no mine buyers made legal commitments to rehire the Blackjewel workers. However, an attorney for Kopper Glo Mining, which purchased mines in Kentucky, said the company intends to hire at least some Blackjewel employees. 

 

Blackjewel Miners Continue Protest As Bankruptcy Hearing Looms Friday, Aug 2 2019 

Miners left unpaid by the bankrupt Blackjewel coal company say they are prepared to keep up their protest on railroad tracks in Harlan County, Kentucky, where they are blocking delivery of a load of coal. As their protest grows and gains attention, a bankruptcy court hearing on Monday could determine whether and when the miners get their paychecks.

The blockade began simply enough Monday when five out-of-work miners organized via social media to block a coal train leaving one of the Blackjewel facilities.

“If they can move that train, they can get us our money,” miner Shane Smith said.

Curren Sheldon

Miners and supporters hold a meeting along the railroad tracks.

The group grew to nine. Police asked them to clear the tracks but the miners simply moved to a different location and stood their ground. They scrawled a simple message of protest on the cardboard from a pizza box:

“No Pay, We Stay.”

miners signsSydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

A supporter with a protest sign made from a pizza box.

They played cornhole, the beanbag toss game, on the tracks. More miners and supporters showed up, and donations poured in: food, bottled water, portable toilets, a generator and lights (for more games of cornhole in the night).

The protest has since grown to dozens of miners and supporters, attracted national media attention, and has become a required pilgrimage site for campaigning politicians.

“It’s a little bit of a good feeling of accomplishment but we still ain’t done,” said miner Bobby Sexton. “We’re gonna stay here until we get some answers.”

But the miners are not the only ones looking for answers – and money – from what was the country’s sixth-largest coal mining company. A federal bankruptcy judge will decide who gets their money, and when.

Curren Sheldon

An aerial shot of the encampment that has grown up around the protest site.

Growing Protest

Blackjewel workers have gone without pay since the end of June, when, miners said, paychecks bounced without warning amid a chaotic bankruptcy filing. Backjewel owes more than $11 million in unpaid wages and taxes to roughly 1,100 workers in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.

But the company also owes tens of millions of dollars in business debts, taxes, mining royalties, and fines for mine safety and land reclamation violations.

During the course of the bankruptcy, federal Judge Frank Volk has expressed sympathy for Blackjewel employees, but has not yet forced the company creditors to pay them.

“The court is concerned about the employees,” Volk said during a July 19 hearing. “Where do they fall in the scheme in respect to recoveries in this case?”

That may become more clear Monday when Volk presides over a sale hearing. Blackjewel’s assets hit the auction block Thursday, Aug. 1. The closed-door process continued Friday.

Looming Decision

Sam Petsonk, an attorney with West Virginia’s Mountain State Justice, is representing miners from Backjewel’s eastern division. He said whether or not miners get paid depends on how much money comes from the sale of Blackjewel’s assets.

“What we need to see out of the auction is adequate proceeds to cover the obligations to the employees who are not returning to work,” he said.

Employee wage claims generally do have some priority in bankruptcy cases, but come below “secured” claims and obligations to the government such as mine reclamation costs, Petsonk said.

He is hopeful unpaid Kentucky miners may be near the top of the list of creditors due to a state law that requires some Kentucky employers to post a performance bond covering wages. Blackjewel didn’t comply with that law.

Curren Sheldon

Protesting Blackjewel miners in Harlan Co., KY.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear has criticized his political rival, Gov. Matt Bevin, for the failure to make Blackjewel secure a bond. Beshear is the Democratic candidate challenging Bevin’s reelection this year.

On Friday Beshear called on Bevin to fire his Labor Cabinet Secretary over the matter.

“His job is to look out for our workers, but he failed to secure the bond from Blackjewel that could have paid the coal miners in Harlan County,” Beshear said at an event in Paducah, Kentucky.

Petsonk said if the proceeds of the sale are not sufficient to pay miners, it could then come from liquidating the company’s remaining assets.

If that isn’t enough, he said, “then we have to look to the we have to look to the liquidation process or to the non-debtor entities like Jeff Hoops personally.”

Hoops is the former Blackjewel CEO who was forced out early in the bankruptcy, when creditors demanded he step down. Hoops is well-known for his philanthropy in the area and is building a resort hotel near his home in Milton, West Virginia. He also has a separate coal entity,  Lexington Coal Company.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Hoops said he’s also frustrated by the situation with the unpaid miners.

“I’m as frustrated as they are,” he said. “I no longer work for Blackjewel, I resigned more than a month ago so I have no idea what’s going on there. I’m really sorry that it’s reached this point.”

‘A Real Mess’

Hoops has been the focus of ire for many of the protesting miners, and his name shows up in some unflattering T-shirt slogans. Some industry observers say the company’s management under Hoops’ leadership set the stage for the chaotic bankruptcy and its aftermath.

“Let’s be clear about this,” said Clark Williams-Derry, director of energy finance at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank. “Blackjewel was a company that suffered from terrible financial management, just terrible.”

He said the company wasn’t setting aside enough money to pay wages or make its employee retirement plan contributions. And Blackjewel amassed huge debts in back taxes to the federal government and to state and local governments.

“It’s just a mess, just a real mess,” Williams-Derry said.

Curren Sheldon

Near the scene of the miners’ protest in Harlan Co., KY.

He said that is what makes this coal company bankruptcy so much more disruptive than the many others that have roiled the mining industry in recent years. It also complicates the sale of assets in order to recover debts, pay miners, and continue with work at some of the mines.

“Some of these mines are probably just not profitable,” Williams-Derry said, especially those carrying large debts for mine land reclamation. “There may simply be no buyer who’s willing to take on some of these mines and and pick up the cost of cleanup.”

The miners in Harlan County say many plan to attend the court hearing Monday to make sure their voices are heard.

 

Blackjewel Miners Block Railroad To Demand Pay From Bankrupt Coal Company Tuesday, Jul 30 2019 

Some coal miners left without pay by the bankruptcy of coal company Blackjewel LLC are protesting by blocking a coal train in eastern Kentucky. 

The stand-off began early Monday when five miners blocked the train from leaving the Cumberland, Kentucky plant. Despite police asking them to leave, miners spent the night blocking the railroad to protest Blackjewel moving coal while miners have yet to be paid. 

Blackjewel miner Bobby Sexton traveled from Corbin, Kentucky, to support his fellow miners who, like himself, have not received their last paycheck from the company, which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 1. 

“We want answers, we want our money, we want paid,” Sexton said. “We’re gonna make a stand.”

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Miners assemble on railroad tracks to block a shipment of coal from a Blackjewel mine.

The standoff follows a tumultuous month for the country’s sixth-largest coal producer and its 1,700 employees. Blackjewel controls 24 active coal mines and processing and prep facilities in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia and two large surface mines in Wyoming. 

The unfolding bankruptcy proceedings have been chaotic. While most of the company’s Wyoming employees have received back wages, the majority of the company’s 1,110 Appalachian miners have not been paid. 

Appalachian employees are owed nearly $11.8 million in payroll and taxes, as well as $1.2 million in employee retirement contributions.

On Friday, a federal bankruptcy court approved a plan by Blackjewel to begin the sale process of the company’s mines and equipment. Tennessee-based Contura Energy Inc. will be the “Stalking Horse Purchaser,” or initial bidder, for three of Blackjewel’s surface mines — the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Wyoming and the Pax Mine in Fayette County, West Virginia.

A hearing is set for Saturday to complete all sales. 

Fed Up

By mid-morning Tuesday, retired union miners were showing up to the train tracks in solidarity. Food and water donations poured in and many passing cars honked in a show of support. 

Stanley Sturgill came from Lynch, Kentucky, to stand with the protesting Blackjewel miners. Sturgill said he’s been a member of the United Mine Workers of America for 41 years and thought it was important to support the non-union workers. 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

A supporter with a protest sign made from a pizza box.

“If the trains get out that’s more money for the company and nothing for the coal miners and they have shafted these coal miners,” he said. “It’s terrible they … left them high and dry. They can’t go to doctors, they can’t eat  — that’s why we’re trying to help them.”

Reached by phone, former Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops said he’s frustrated too.

“I’m as frustrated as they are,” he said. “I no longer work for Blackjewel, I resigned more than a month ago so I have no idea what’s going on there. I’m really sorry that it’s reached this point.” 

A spokesperson for Blackjewel did not respond to a request for comment but instead sent a link to a website with summary updates on the bankruptcy proceedings.

According to a document on the site, Blackjewel received approval Friday for an additional $2.9 million in debtor-in-possession financing which will be used to extend health insurance and workers compensation policies.  

The company is also terminating the Blackjewel 401(k) plan “which will make it possible for employees to access their hard-earned savings to the extent necessary,” according to an update document posted on July 30.

Standing Firm

Kentucky state Rep. Adam Bowling, a Republican who represents Bell County and parts of Harlan County, brought sandwiches to the site Tuesday morning. He said state and county resources are flowing to displaced Blackjewel miners, but officials have few options for helping employees get owed wages. 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Protesting miners blocked the tracks in the morning fog.

“This should not happen,” he said, adding that he supports the miners’ protest. “The coal mine operators are trying to move the coal that these coal miners actually dug. They’re trying to move it out for the profits and all these guys want is pay for the work that they’ve done.” 

Miner Shane Smith drove 74 miles each way to work at Blackjewel’s D-21 mine in Harlan County. Standing on the tracks, the father of six said he scraped together change to travel to the protest. 

Smith said he has tried unsuccessfully for weeks to access money in his 401K. 

“If they can load a train out they can give us our money,” he said. 

He and the other miners said they’re prepared for a long stand. Bobby Sexton said he feels he has no choice.

“My family’s hungry, and I’m gonna do whatever it takes to feed them,” Sexton said. “I don’t know if I’ll go home if they don’t pay us. I’ll sit here until whenever.”

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