Coal Country: Can A Play About A Mine Disaster Help Bridge A National Divide?  Sunday, Apr 5 2020 

Written by Jessica Blank & Erik Jensen Original Music by Steve EarleDirected by Jessica BlankThe actors deliver their lines from a sparse stage — just a few benches around them and 29 modest lights above. For the most part they speak directly to the audience, sharing memories of the lives of husbands, sons, fathers and nephews, some of the 29 men who died on April 5, 2010, when an explosion ripped through the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.  

It’s a powerful performance, made even more so by the realization that nearly all of the actors’ dialogue is drawn directly from court transcripts and hours of interviews with about a half dozen people who lived through that tragic day and the many long days that followed.

“Coal Country,” which opened in New York’s storied Public Theater, introduced New York theater-goers to the real lives of families affected by the tragedy. 

The coronavirus pandemic forced the early closure of the play. But shortly after its opening I visited the playwrights, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, at their Brooklyn home to learn more about their approach to documentary theater. The wife-and-husband writing duo say they hope their work will help urban audiences better understand life in the real coal country, where people have long sacrificed to help build and power America’s cities.     

Joan Marcus, The Public Theater

Jessica Blank, Erik Jensen and Steve Earle in rehearsal

Blank explained that the work starts with outreach to potential subjects, a delicate job given the grief and need for privacy among family members. At first, Blank said, she wondered if she would get people to agree to talk. They were not returning her calls.

“I finally figured out after a couple of weeks of this, I said, ‘You know, I think that this is a community where you have to show your face.’” She said. “Just getting a phone message from some person in New York being like, Hey, I’m doing a project, do you want to talk to us? That isn’t going to do the trick.”

So in April, 2016, she traveled to a Charleston, West Virginia, courthouse. She sat with family members of victims as Massey Energy’s CEO Don Blankenship was sentenced for conspiracy to violate mine safety rules.

“And then I think what happened is that word got around that we were okay,” she said. “Because then we started sitting down with more and more folks.”

Blank and Jensen recorded hours of interviews during extended visits with people who had worked in the Upper Big Branch Mine and who had lost family members there. Despite being long-time New Yorkers they found an instant bond with the West Virginia families they met.

“I’m from the rural Midwest, and, you know, grew up in a small town,” Jensen said. “And so like, I immediately related to people kind of on that level.”

“Every experience we had sitting with every person we sat down with was incredibly powerful and incredibly eye opening and incredibly moving,” Blank said. She recounted learning details about long-wall mining — something she’d never heard of before — and the way that long traditions of union mining gave way in West Virginia over the past couple of decades. 

“And we learned a lot about humanity, as we often do, when we do this kind of project,” she said. 

Blank and Jensen have the very married couple’s habit of finishing each other’s sentences and picking up on their spouse’s thoughts. Jensen continued with the thread Blank had started. 

“My thing about it was, I learned a lot about grief.” He said that during the course of the project he lost both his father and uncle. His own grief helped him relate to what people in the West Virginia community were experiencing.  

“I think that was when I finally understood what we were writing. Because I multiply that by 29 and, my heart couldn’t take it,” he said. “I finally understood what it was like to be in that community, and it broke my heart open.

“And thank God for Steve’s music,” he added. “Because his songs address grief in such a beautiful way.” 

Greek Chorus Of One

“Steve” is singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who sat in on some of the interviews and wrote songs which he performs to accompany the play. “Steve, to me, is the heir to Woody Guthrie,” Jensen said. “He tells real stories with his songs, you know, stories of the heart.”

“Coal Country” is not a musical. The characters rarely sing and the songs do not propel the narrative, as in a musical. Rather, Earle sits on stage with a guitar or banjo and listens intently to the actors, then adds a song that might echo a characters’ loss or hint at deeper themes. Jensen described his role as akin to a Greek chorus of one.  

“He’s there to kind of hold down the play and to orient us when we need it, or to, to break our hearts when we need that.”

In a reworking of the traditional ballad of John Henry, for example, Earle weaves in allusions to the decline of union representation among miners.

The Union come and tried to make a stand

West Virginia miners voted union to a man

You wouldn’t know it now but that was then

The Union come and tried to make a stand

Joan Marcus, The Public Theater

Steve Earle performs during “Coal Country.”

And in the lovely, simple “The Mountain” (a song he first recorded with the Del McCoury Band in 1999) Earle sums up the conflicted feelings of people who are both tied to the natural world and to an industry that wreaks great natural destruction.  

I was born on this mountain, this mountain’s my home

She holds me and keeps me from worry and woe

Well, they took everything that she gave, now they’re gone

But I’ll die on this mountain, this mountain’s my home

Earle is pulling together several of the songs from “Coal Country” into a new album, “Ghosts of West Virginia,” which is scheduled for release in May.

Bridging Divides

I grew up in West Virginia, and my family roots there go back several generations. As with many West Virginia natives, I greet any outsider’s depiction of the place and its people with a degree of wariness. We’ve been burned more than a few times by hurtful stereotypes, even by those who meant well.  

That is perhaps why I was surprised at my very emotional response to “Coal Country.”

[At the time I saw it, the coronavirus threat was just beginning to emerge in public awareness to the degree that I knew not to touch my face. Reader, it is hard to avoid touching your face while weeping.]

It is, of course, deeply emotional content to begin with. This is, after all, the story of one of the worst mining tragedies in recent history. But beyond that I was struck by, and grateful for, the simple details about West Virginians that Blank and Jensen recognized and relayed to their New York audience.  

Their commitment to deep listening brought some deep truths to the stage. 

“I think it’s our job in making this kind of work,” Blank said. “Find the people who lived that story, sit down with them, and then get out of the way.”

Joan Marcus, The Public Theater

The cast in rehearsal for “Coal Country.”

It occurred to me, watching their play in an audience mostly made up of New Yorkers, that this is an opportunity to perhaps help overcome, in some small way, the great divide between urban and rural America. 

“Well I certainly hope,” Blank started. “It would be a privilege,” Jensen finished.

“This is a really big blind spot in communities that I move in, where people are so conscious about their politics,” Blank continued. “The things that people say sometimes about the rural working class — otherwise, really thoughtful people — are shocking to me. And I think it’s a really big blind spot that mostly comes from not having any contact with folks who come from a really different place and a really different lifestyle.”

“People have dignity, people have history,” Jensen said. “And whether you’re pro-coal or against coal, coal miners helped build this country, and they should be treated as such.” 

“Built these buildings here,” Blank interjected, gesturing at the street scene outside the window.

“And right now what they’re doing is they’re blocking trains with their bodies in order to get their benefits or in order to get their last paycheck,” Jensen said. “And I just think workers should be treated better than that.”

Justice Coal Companies Agree To Settle $5 Million In Delinquent Mine Safety Debts Thursday, Apr 2 2020 

Coal companies owned by the family of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice have agreed to pay more than $5 million in overdue mine health and safety fines and fees.

According to a press release released Wednesday, a total of 24 coal companies owned by the Justice family agreed to settle millions of dollars in unpaid penalties and fines owed to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. 

The fines stemmed from nearly 3,000 citations issued to Justice mine operators between May 2014 and May 2019 under the federal Mine Safety and Health Act. 

The settlement comes nearly one year after the U.S. Department of Justice sued the Justice companies in May 2019, following an Ohio Valley ReSource investigation that showed the Justice companies had the highest delinquent mine safety debt in the U.S. mining industry. 

The civil lawsuit, brought by U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen of the Western District of Virginia and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, alleged 23 Justice coal companies located in five states — Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky — owed more than $5 million in delinquent debts. 

In the release, Cullen said the Justice-owned companies agreed to pay all outstanding debts and penalties associated with their mine safety violations.

“It is our hope that this landmark collection action and settlement agreement sends a clear message that the Department of Justice will aggressively pursue mine safety violations and hold owners and operators accountable,” Cullen said. 

In total, the Justice companies will pay $4,065,578.29 to satisfy the debts identified in the original lawsuit. In addition, another Justice company, Bluestone Coal Corporation, also agreed to pay $1,064,547.18  for other unpaid fines and fees.

The original 23 companies in the settlement include: Southern Coal Corporation, Justice Coal of Alabama, A&G Coal Corporation, Black River Coal, Chestnut Land Holdings, Double Bonus Coal Company, Dynamic Energy, Four Star Resources, Frontier Coal Company, Infinity Energy, Justice Energy Company, Justice Highwall Mining, Kentucky Fuel Corporation, Keystone Service Industries, M&P Services, Nine Mile Mining, Nufac Mining Company, Pay Car Mining; Premium Coal Company, S and H Mining, Sequoia Energy, Tams Management and Virginia Fuel Corporation.

Black Lung Benefits Drop For Kentucky Coal Miners After Controversial Law Change  Monday, Feb 24 2020 

Lynn Estel Stanley was the kind of coal mine foreman who wanted to know if there was a safety problem, and would always be the one to go fix it himself. He was also the kind of miner who refused to slow down, even when his men told him he was overexerting himself. But when he was 69, his doctor told him it was time to stop for good.

Stanley wasn’t surprised. He knew he was getting sick. “It kept getting progressively worse and harder to breathe to the point where I just couldn’t do my job, I didn’t have enough oxygen,” he said.

He had watched coal-miner relatives die of black lung, a form of lung disease caused by breathing in coal and rock dust. Particulates lodge in the lungs, causing the tissue to harden and restrict the amount of oxygen that can enter the bloodstream.

Stanley also knew that if he could prove to a judge that he had the disease, he would be entitled to financial benefits.

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Lynn Stanley, left, is caught up in changes to the law that may make it more difficult for him to win black lung benefits. On right, his attorney Tom Moak.

So he got a chest X-ray, and was diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis, the most serious form of black lung disease, by a radiologist named Brandon Crum. Over the next few months, three more physicians would tell Stanley he had a serious case of the disease.

But in court, none of that would matter.

As the epidemic of black lung disease continues in Appalachian coal country, Stanley is one of many Kentucky miners caught up in changes to state law limiting who can diagnose black lung.

Two years ago, Kentucky lawmakers made a controversial change to the rules for black lung benefits. Now, state records show that since that change, the percentage of Kentucky miners diagnosed by state-approved experts as having the disease fell from 54 percent before the law change to just 26 percent. An analysis of state data by the Ohio Valley ReSource also suggests that the doctors now making decisions on claims more often side with coal companies than with coal miners.

For Stanley that change means that the opinion of one pulmonologist will hold more weight than three other physicians, potentially costing him benefits he’ll need to live with his disease.

A Difficult Diagnosis

In order to be awarded benefits for black lung in Kentucky, a miner or a family member of a miner applies for benefits with the state’s Labor Cabinet. The application includes a blood gas analysis indicating breathing impairment, and an X-ray demonstrating that the impairment is caused at least in part by black lung disease. Pulmonologists typically perform the blood gas study, and radiologists typically diagnose the disease by reading the X-ray.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Once the claim is filed, the miner’s most recent employer’s insurance company can request to have an X-ray read by a physician of their choosing, and the judge overseeing the case can require a third reading from a “designated evaluator,” whose analysis is presumed to be correct unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In 2018 Kentucky lawmakers overhauled many aspects of the state’s workers’ compensation system in legislation known as House Bill 2. One provision of that bill prevented radiologists, whose expertise is in analyzing X-rays, from serving as designated evaluators in state claims, and said only certain pulmonologists could serve in that role. Only two pulmonologists in the state opted to serve in the new system: Dr. Bruce Broudy and Dr. Byron Westerfield. Both have reputations for being more sympathetic to industry.

The designated evaluator who read Stanley’s X-ray, Dr. Broudy of the Lexington Clinic, disagreed with the three other physicians involved in Stanley’s case. Dr. Broudy said the miner had a simpler form of the disease, and would therefore be entitled to less money.

“Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon in these cases,” said Tom Moak, a Prestonsburg attorney representing Stanley in his benefits case. “Somebody like Dr. Broudy, who has a history of working for coal companies, generally is considered more conservative. He almost always finds that somebody doesn’t have any black lung, or has one of the lower levels of black lung.”

Data from Kentucky’s Department of Workers’ Claims showed that taken together, Drs. Broudy and Westerfield disagreed with the initial diagnosis in 85.5 percent of cases they examined. Both pulmonologists declined to be interviewed for this story.

Dr. Broudy told Moak in a recent deposition that in his 40 years of work in black lung cases, 90 to 95 percent of the time he had been working for coal companies or their insurance firms.

The changes to state law have not resulted in a backlog of cases, as opponents had feared. But state records indicate that the restrictions have had an impact on the share of miners who win their claims. The ReSource found that 161 benefits claims were filed but only 16 coal miners were awarded black lung benefits in 2019. That’s the lowest ratio of claims awarded to claims dismissed in the past seven years. (It is important to note, though, that not all claims are resolved in the same calendar year in which they’re filed.)

Physicians’ Protest

Black lung disease can be difficult to diagnose because it can manifest in a number of different ways, said Virginia-based radiologist Kathy DePonte, a nationally recognized expert in diagnosing black lung. “But you can look at the radiograph and, with enough experience, make a fairly confident diagnosis.”

DePonte looks for what are called opacities on the X-ray. “What’s the size, shape, density of those opacities? Are they symmetric, are they asymmetric?” Multiple small opacities may masquerade as one large one; thinning edges of an opacity may make it appear smaller than it really is. Black lung is easy to misdiagnose as other diseases because it can look so many different ways in an image.

“When you’re looking at a radiograph, it’s what do you expect to see, what do you want to see,” DePonte said.

The combination of the skill it takes to look for a “polar bear in a snow storm” and the perspective an individual reader takes toward black lung means that over time, physicians develop a reputation for reading more or less liberally. But with the right training, DePonte said, both pulmonologists and radiologists can and do adequately diagnose black lung.

DePonte was baffled by Kentucky lawmakers’ decision in 2018 to block radiologists from reading X-rays. “My first thought is maybe it was a political decision.”

Introduced by state Rep. Adam Koenig, a Kenton Co. Republican, the black lung provisions in HB 2 made Kentucky the only state to prevent radiologists from reading X-rays in state claims.

Republican state Sen. Phillip Wheeler, a lawyer who represents black lung claimants, alleged the bill was intended to limit the number of miners who won benefits. He referred to the new law as the “Brandon Crum Exclusion Bill.”

A radiologist based in Pikeville, Crum is certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to diagnose black lung. In 2016, Crum alerted researchers at NIOSH to the extraordinary levels of complicated black lung, or PMF, he was identifying in his clinic. He later worked with NIOSH on a 2016 study confirming a cluster of black lung in central Appalachian coal communities. Follow-up research found that one in five experienced central Appalachian coal miners would develop some form of the disease.

The law change came at a time when struggling coal companies were laying off a record number of workers and when more miners were applying for and winning benefits in state cases. The bill had strong support from the coal industry, including Kentucky’s Coal Association.

“What we’ve seen is a more accurate diagnosis and treatment plan post-House Bill 2,” Coal Association President Tyler White said. “A lung specialist should be diagnosing lung issues. Not radiologists.”

The professional associations for both pulmonologists and radiologists disavowed the provision in the 2018 law and have called for its repeal. Speaking on behalf of the American Thoracic Society, which represents over 1,500 pulmonologists, Dr. Robert Cohen of the University of Illinois at Chicago told NPR in 2018 that the Kentucky law was “ill-considered” and a “disservice to miners.”

An Uphill Battle 

The issue has caught the attention of Kentucky state Rep. Angie Hatton, a Democrat who represents Letcher Co. in eastern Kentucky. Hatton has introduced a bill in the 2020 legislative session that would essentially undo the provision that excluded Crum, DePonte and other radiologists.

The bill has the support of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, who has called attention to the geographic challenges posed by the restrictions in the 2018 law. “Almost all of our coal miners live in western and eastern Kentucky — the two sides of our state. But in order to get the diagnosis they need to receive treatment for a very difficult disease, guess where they have to go? To Lexington or to Louisville. I think that’s wrong,” Beshear said.

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear voiced his support for reform of the black lung law at a February 14 event in Pikeville.

Sen. Wheeler has suggested he may introduce a similar bill in the Senate, but only if Hatton’s bill does well in the House. And that depends on the chair of the House Economic Development & Workforce Investment Committee, Rep. Russell Webber, Republican of Shepherdsville.

“I have spoken with Chairman Webber and with the sponsor of the original reform bill, Representative Koenig. I am presenting them with more evidence every time I speak with them, gathering evidence from the miners themselves, from the health care facilities here, and from the Department of Workers’ Claims,” Hatton said. “And I think that once I give them enough evidence, that they’re going to give me a hearing.”

Rep. Webber has not indicated he will bring Hatton’s bill up for a hearing.

The road ahead looks difficult for coal miner Lynn Stanley, too. He may be working with attorney Tom Moak for years as his state and federal black lung claims wind through parallel systems. (According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 32 percent of Kentucky miners who file black lung claims win benefits in the federal system.) If he wins his case, the insurance company representing his most recent employer might appeal, which could drag the case on even longer.

But Stanley is patient, and he’s understanding.

“I’m not putting the coal companies down, I realize they’re in a fight for survival right now,” he said. But, he added, “If they harm an individual and that individual can prove that he has been harmed by that dust, then he should be compensated for it.”

More Unpaid Appalachian Miners Stage A Coal Train Blockade  Tuesday, Jan 14 2020 

IMG_0400For the second time since summer, eastern Kentucky coal miners are blockading a railroad track to protest unpaid wages. The new blockade, which was started Monday afternoon by Quest Energy miners, echoes the months-long blockade by Blackjewel coal miners over the summer and speaks to a growing discontent in Appalachian coal country.

“It’s hard to go to work between two rocks and not get paid for it,” said a miner who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “There’s men that’s getting their power bills cut off and men’s children starving.” 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Miners and supporters block the railroad in Pike Co., KY

The two miners called on their workmates to join them. By 7 p.m. Monday evening, an additional six men had arrived. Residents living near the blockade site in Blackburn Bottom, Pike County, provided the protesters with blankets, firewood and cases of water. 

Approximately 50 miners have reportedly not received pay since December 27, and several previous paychecks came late. 

The miner who asked to remain anonymous and his colleague, Dalton Russell, said they were inspired by the months-long railroad blockade by Blackjewel miners over the summer. In that protest, the federal Department of Labor intervened, and miners received back pay after months of delay. 

The Blackjewel protest occurred amid that company’s drawn-out and chaotic bankruptcy, adding a layer of bureaucracy to an already fraught situation. By comparison, Quest Energy’s parent company, American Resources Corporation, is not in bankruptcy, so it is likely that these miners will receive pay sooner. 

Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Miner Dalton Russell, right, and others warm themselves beside the tracks.

But like many coal companies, American Resources Corp. has suffered as demand for coal drops and electric utilities switch to other fuels, such as natural gas.

American Resources Corp. also owns Perry County Coal, which made news in recent months for failing to pay an additional 75 workers. Perry County Judge Executive Scott Alexander told the Ohio Valley ReSource Monday that his office is collaborating with both state and federal departments of labor over potential violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. That’s the law the Labor Department used to intervene in the Blackjewel case. 

Quest miner Russell said he stopped going to work because he didn’t have enough money for gas, and was then fired for not showing up to work. “You gotta stand up for yourself and for the rest of the guys,” Russell said. Russell is worried about how he’ll feed his three young children. 

“I’ve been packing extra lunch and sending them to the men up there,” said the partner of the miner, who asked to remain anonymous. 

In a statement, American Resources Corp. blamed the delayed payment on a “temporary blip” in the coal market and claimed that the miners have now been paid. The miners dispute that, saying they’ve yet to see their money. 

“The team members that are frustrated and protesting are good people with good hearts,” the company said in the statement. “Given challenging markets we are focused on ensuring the longevity of the employment for all the men and women of our organization and will shortly have all this resolved and excited to continue to provide jobs in an area that has had challenges given the decline of coal usage.”

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. 


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