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.

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. 

 

Paychecks Cut For W.Va. Blackjewel Miners; Ky. And Va. Miners Still Waiting Thursday, Sep 19 2019 

West Virginia employees of coal operator Blackjewel LLC have received their final paychecks more than two months after the company declared bankruptcy on July 1.

In an agreement reached last week between the Department of Labor and the company, Blackjewel cut paper checks for all owed wages to a few dozen employees working at the company’s Pax Mine in Fayette County, West Virginia.

While good news for former West Virginia employees, about 1,000 miners in Kentucky and Virginia are still owed millions of dollars in back wages.

Christina Burgess’ husband, Greg, ran heavy equipment at the Pax Mine. The 20-year coal mining veteran had been laid off before, but the family had never before experienced the fallout from a paycheck bouncing, as Greg’s did in early July.

“It’s been unreal,” Christina Burgess said.

The Burgess family received Greg’s owed wages late last week, but is still waiting for the check to clear a bank hold.

Blackjewel’s bad check created a series of challenges. The first few unemployment checks the family received went straight to the bank to get the account out of the red. In total, Burgess said Blackjewel’s bankruptcy has cost her family about $3,000 in penalties and fees.

Greg quickly found new work after the Pax Mine closed and the family had some money saved in preparation for a downturn in the local industry. Burgess said she empathizes with younger miners who were hit hard by Blackjewel’s sudden bankruptcy.

As one of the administrators for the Blackjewel Employees Stand Together Facebook group, she has heard many stories of families unable to pay their bills as a result of not being paid by Blackjewel. She expects the fallout from Blackjewel’s bad checks to have long-term consequences as well.

“Everybody that’s involved in this right now their credit score has been damaged because of this,” Burgess said. “And that’s hard to come back from when you when your credit starts going down.”

She said she reached out to more than three dozen West Virginia state senators and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, but heard nothing back. She said she feels abandoned by West Virginia lawmakers who were slow to advocate on behalf of stiffed workers in the bankruptcy court and haven’t pushed utility companies or others to offer leniency to struggling Blackjewel families.

“They could have at least came in and said, you know, ‘don’t send turn off notices for the power bills, give them a little leeway,’” she said. “Nothing. We didn’t receive anything.”

Truck into Revelation mineBrittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A truck enters a mine belonging to the now-bankrupt Revelation coal company.

The Pax mine is now owned by Tennessee-based Contura Energy. About 1,000 Blackjewel employees in Virginia and Kentucky are still awaiting millions of dollars in owed wages. A protest on the railroad tracks in Harlan County is in its eighth week.

Millions of dollars worth of coal mined by former Blackjewel employees is sitting in railcars. The Department of Labor says the coal is “hot goods” and can’t be moved or sold until the workers who mined it are paid for their work.

Last week, the bankruptcy court in West Virginia overseeing the case gave the Labor Department, Blackjewel, and Blackjewel Marketing and Sales (BJMS) — buyer of the disputed coal — until Sept. 23 to submit a series of briefs to the court. A final set of briefs is due Oct. 1.

The judge said he expects to review the documents “swiftly” and rule soon after whether the coal should remain sitting until the Blackjewel workers who mined it are fully paid, or if it can be sold.

BJMS has proposed paying $1.4 million for the coal. The Labor Department says back wages owed to workers directly involved in producing the “hot goods” coal in Kentucky and Virginia totals more than $3 million.

Idle Lands: Justice Coal Group Top User Of Loophole Allowing Mine Lands To Sit Idle Thursday, Sep 5 2019 

Standing at an overlook on the top of Black Mountain — the tallest point in Kentucky —  the wooded Appalachian mountains stretch on like a sea of green for miles.

For many, this mountain is synonymous with the coal industry. It straddles the state line separating Harlan County, Kentucky and Wise County, Virginia, two communities that have long relied on mining the black gold contained in its depths.

Among the lush forests, barren, brown spots dot the landscape, a testament to this history. These are coal mines, created when the tops of these mountains were removed. From the top of Black Mountain, one sprawling mine and its towering high wall dominate the view.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Matt Hepler of the advocacy group Appalachian Voices.

“So, we are looking currently looking at Looney Ridge surface mine number one,” says Matt Hepler, an environmental scientist with the advocacy group Appalachian Voices.

Hepler has for years been following action, or lack thereof, at the Looney Ridge mine, which is operated by A&G Coal, a coal company run by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

Coal has not been produced here since at least 2013 when A&G Coal asked Virginia regulators to place the mine in what is called temporary cessation. The permit status allows mining to pause, giving mining companies flexibility on requirements for land reclamation until it becomes more economically feasible to begin extracting coal again. And, as the name implies, this idling of mines is supposed to be temporary.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

View of the Looney Ridge surface mine from atop Black Mountain.

An analysis of mine permit data conducted by the Center for Public Integrity finds Central Appalachia is home to about half of all idled coal mines in the country. CPI found more than 200 mines are idled across West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. About half have been that way for three or more years. Warehousing mines using this permit status throws workers and nearby communities into limbo all while crucial environmental cleanup is delayed.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The analysis shows that the Justice companies are the nation’s most frequent users of coal mine idling. Thirty-three mines and a coal preparation plant owned by the Justice family’s companies were idled as of mid-August. Fifteen of those have been in that status for at least three years, according to CPI’s analysis. In West Virginia, one Justice mine in McDowell County has been idled for almost a decade.

That number doesn’t include the Looney Ridge mine or others nearby in Virginia where coal also hasn’t been mined for years. That’s because in early 2014, state mining regulators entered into a compliance agreement with the Justices to force them to reclaim the site.

Hepler, with Appalachian Voices, said that agreement has not resulted in much actual reclamation. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has amended the compliance agreement multiple times.

“It’s looked like this for as long as I’ve been coming up here,” he said, pointing to the same broken-down bulldozer that has been there for years.

Tarah Kesterson, a spokesperson with the Virginia DMME, said the agency is pushing the Justices to clean up the site and is actively monitoring the situation as well as conducting inspections.

“We are doing everything within our enforcement authority to ensure that this gets done,” she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Justice companies defended the reclamation work and said idling permits is a standard practice across the industry.

But as the nation shifts away from coal toward more economic options for power generation, such as natural gas and renewable energy, some fear the use of mine idling can be used as a stepping stone to abandon mines, passing the responsibility for cleanup to the government and taxpayers.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border.

Community Impact

Idle mines, especially those left untouched for years at a time, can negatively affect the economy, health, and environment of nearby communities.

“When mines become inactive or idle, they starve a local community, and they deprive the community of the coal mining jobs and other related jobs,” said Joe Pizarchik, former head of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the federal agency in charge of regulating surface coal mines, during the Obama administration.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

When mines enter temporary cessation employment plummets. CPI’s analysis found coal operations that have been idled for at least three years had 85 percent fewer full-time employees after switching into idle status than they did a year before.

“It also puts that land in a totally non-productive state,” Pizarchik said. “It’s not making money on anything for anybody for the community, and it can be a potential pollution source.”

In addition to being unsightly, there are health and safety risks associated with leaving mines unreclaimed, said Emily Bernhardt an ecosystem ecologist and biogeochemist and professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Mines left idled can expose residents to coal and silica dust. They can also pose a risk for landslides and flooding. During surface coal mining, operators pile tons of rock and liquid behind earthen dams. When left idle, those impoundments face a greater likelihood of failing.

“You can’t actually make any improvements when you’re just sort of on hold,” Bernhardt said.

Who Pays?

Federal regulators have made two attempts since the 1990s to reform the way temporary cessation is used, according to public records obtained by CPI. Both have stalled. That’s despite a 2010 survey of state regulators that showed most states believed there should be limits on how long mines could be idled.

Federal law only requires that mining companies notify regulators when a permit will be in temporary cessation longer than 30 days.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Black Mtn. holds both natural beauty and scars of resource extraction.

State regulators can reject applications to change mines to an idled status if they find noncompliance or ongoing pollution. Kesterson with the Virginia DMME said before an operator can apply for temporary cessation, reclamation must be up to date. In Kentucky and Virginia, inspections continue while a mine is idled, and operators are fined if violations are found.

While in the past, mine operators may have used idling to pause production to allow coal prices to rebound, Pizarchik worries the nation’s shift away from coal means the chances of idled mines being cleaned up are shrinking.

“I believe it’s extremely unlikely that those mines will ever be activated again because the price of coal is never going to go up,” he said. “The demand is only going to continue to shrink.”

If operators walk away from idled mines, states could face challenges with mine reclamation depending on how coal mine bonds are regulated, and that could leave taxpayers on the hook for paying for reclamation.

In Virginia, for example, Justice mines have an estimated $200 million worth of cleanup liabilities, according to minutes from an April 2017 Coal Surface Mining Reclamation Fund Advisory Board meeting.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

While Virginia is moving away from allowing coal operators to “self-bond” — or not put up a cash bond or buy a bond from an insurance firm if a company is deemed to be in good financial health — some A&G Coal permits remain self-bonded, Kesterson said. That means if the company were to go under, the state would get none of the money required for cleanup.

The state has in the past allowed coal companies to pay only partial bond amounts into a shared pool. The bond pool is meant to supplement cleanup for more than 150 permits, but the pool has less than $10 million cash.

“The reclamation would cost more than what we have in a pool bond,” Kesterson said of liabilities owed by A&G Coal. “So that’s why we’re trying to work with them, to get them to pay for the reclamation.”

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Not all states are concerned. John Mura, spokesperson for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said in an email that only 10 percent of Kentucky’s coal mines, or 150 permits, are in temporary cessation.

CPI’s analysis examined federal MSHA data on idled mining permits and is likely an undercount of idled mines because state and federal data are incomplete and often not comparable.

Mura said that following an order in 2011 by OSMRE to reform the state bonding program, base bond amounts have increased by about 60 percent.

“Kentucky has made great strides to ensure that reclamation bonds are adequate to complete reclamation in the event of bond forfeiture,” he said.

As the industry contracts, more bankruptcies are likely, which can open the door for companies to walk away from mines where buyers can’t be found.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A truck enters a mine belonging to the now-bankrupt Revelation Energy.

That’s one concern currently playing out with the Blackjewel LLC bankruptcy, which has left more than 1,000 miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia without their last paychecks.

CPI’s analysis found Blackjewel and other subsidiaries owned by former CEO Jeff Hoops had 21 coal mines and related facilities temporarily idled as of mid-August, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data, and seven of those had been paused for at least three years. Many of those mines have not been purchased since Blackjewel’s bankruptcy.

At least 16 additional operations owned by other companies in bankruptcy sit in idle status, all of them in Central Appalachia, according to federal data.

‘Raped Out Mountains’

Retired coal miner and mine inspector Larry Bush knows firsthand how idle mines can impact the environment.

Bush lives below two Justice mines — one that is active and Looney Ridge. Sitting under a covered gazebo at a park in the town of Appalachia, Virginia, where he has lived almost his whole life, Bush said he sees the environmental toll unreclaimed mines can have on the environment.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Former miner Larry Bush lives near two large coal mines in Virginia.

“There’s a little stream that’s pretty much filled up with silt,” he said. “Nothing can live in it. I mean, there’s nothing, I don’t think.”

The 70-year-old Vietnam veteran is soft-spoken and sports a pair of reflective aviator glasses.

Bush wants to see this region rebound as the coal industry declines, but he struggles to see how that can happen with idled mines marking the landscape.

“If they’re not actively employing people, or actively working the site, they should be forced to do their reclamation work instead of just leaving raped out mountains,” he says.

This story was produced in partnership with High Country News and the Center for Public Integrity. CPI’s Mark Olalde contributed reporting and Joe Yerardi produced CPI’s data analysis.

‘Bloody Harlan’ Revisited: Blackjewel Miners Draw On Labor History While Facing Uncertain Future Monday, Aug 12 2019 

Curtis Cress sat in the gravel beside a railroad track in Harlan County, Kentucky. Tall and thin with a long, black beard, Cress is every bit a coal miner, or, he was until a month ago.

“It’s part of my heritage, you know? My dad and papaws had always done it,” he said. “And I’m proud of that heritage.”

Cress had been at these railroad tracks for days, with little sleep. Not far down the rails sat a row of hopper cars filled with coal from his former employer, Blackjewel Coal.

In the last month, Cress and his fellow miners have gone from moving coal out of the ground to stopping coal in its tracks. Blackjewel’s chaotic bankruptcy filing on July 1 left about a thousand miners like Cress with bounced checks and unpaid bills, and largely in the dark about their future.

Aerials_Miners_On_Tracks-2Curren Sheldon

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

Days turned into weeks, and miners had no way to know if they still had jobs, or health insurance, or access to their retirement savings.

On July 29, five miners saw an opportunity. A train full of coal was leaving a Harlan County loading facility. The five men clambered onto the railroad tracks to block the train. More than a week later, they hadn’t left.

“If they can move this train, they can give us our money!” miner Shane Smith said.

That rag-tag group quickly grew to a full-fledged protest camp, complete with solar showers, a chore list, and a rotating schedule of miners to hold the place down. Community members brought food. Politicians stopped by to make speeches.  Kids played cornhole on the tracks.

“We’re suffering, our kids are suffering, water’s getting cut off,” Austin Watts said. “As long as I gotta stay here, I’ll stay.”

Miners_On_Tracks-37Curren Sheldon

Protesting Blackjewel miners in Harlan Co., KY.

Arnold Shepherd, a miner from Leslie County, Kentucky, was among those who said the protest recalled an earlier period in Harlan County history.

“This thing here, it puts you in mind of ‘Bloody Harlan,’ back years ago,” Shepherd said.

Bloody Harlan. The name comes from the nearly century-long and sometimes violent struggle between coal companies and workers seeking to unionize.

“Harlan is one of the locations used to undercut wage stability for the rest of the country,” Northern Illinois Univ. labor historian Rosemary Feurer said. Harlan miners started to organize in the 1920s, a struggle that culminated in a long and violent strike in 1931. Miners picketed again in the early 1970s, again sparking violence. “What the miners were saying is, we can’t be basically just extraction engines and robots and tools left to die of black lung,” Feurer said.

Today, the protest is peaceful. The union is largely gone from Kentucky mines. And the entire coal industry is a fraction of what it was decades ago. Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, though more chaotic than most, is just one of many recent shocks to a declining coal industry. Dozens of companies went under in the past decade, and despite a coal-friendly president rolling back regulations more have followed. In 2019 alone, BlackHawk Group LLC, Cambrian Coal LLC, and Cloud Peak Energy Inc. all went bankrupt.

With lower union representation and an expectation of more bankruptcies to come, miners’ advocates and industry watchers worry that coal miners and mining communities will suffer the brunt of the industry’s decline. The Blackjewel miners who took to the tracks are following in a long history of worker protest in Harlan County. They are also stepping into an uncertain future for themselves and their community.

Scene Of Labor Struggles 

“You have to look at ‘Bloody Harlan’ in a long history of a bloody coal industry,” said labor historian Feurer, who has written about the region and legendary labor organizer Mother Jones.

Feurer said the coal industry pushes the full cost of coal onto workers’ health, on workers’ wages, and on the environment. The United Mine Workers of America, Feurer said, arose from workers’ demands for better treatment.

Robert Gumpert, from the Appalshop Archive

Women of the Brookside women’s support group talk with tow truck operator at a roadblock in 1974.

“It’s not only bloody for the labor violence, but for the death toll,” she said, from mining accidents and black lung disease. “It’s more than most wars.”

The UMWA negotiated its first successful wage increase in 1898, and went on to fight for eight-hour workdays and standard measurement for coal. The union helped miners weather the mining industry’s boom and bust cycles, and many of the union’s hard-won health and safety standards are still in place today.

Mine operators viciously opposed miners’ efforts to unionize, particularly in Harlan County. In the bloody 1930s coal wars, miners known to be union members were fired and evicted from company-owned homes. Soon enough, most miners had gone on strike out of solidarity.

Conflict broke out again the 1970s in what was known as the Brookside strike. Two miners were shot, and one died in a strike that lasted over a year and resulted in a new contract.

Robert Gumpert, from the Appalshop Archive

Victory photo after the Highsplint mine voted to join the UMWA in 1974.

Labor Losses

But union membership is in decline across the country, and the miners’ union has declined faster than most. Between 1997 and 2017, overall mine employment in the Ohio Valley dropped by 50 percent. Union participation has declined much faster. Between 1997 and 2017, Ohio Valley miner participation in unions has dropped by 76 percent.

“The reason that unions have really been imperiled in the southern parts of the country,” said Feurer, “is because they’ve been told the only way the South can rise again is by being a non-union, anti-union reserve for companies that were moving from the unionized areas of the north.”

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Feurer said that even though the Blackjewel miners are acting without a union, their protest follows the tradition of labor action in the area.

“Putting their bodies on the lines is what I see is historically connected,” she said. “People who risk themselves, that is what has resonance to a long body of history.”

The Blackjewel miners still feel a strong sense of solidarity with their fellow workers. “If you work in the coal field, you spend more time underneath that mountain than you do with your own family,” said miner Shane Smith. “These men are like a brother to me.”

Some UMWA retirees and other union workers have joined the Blackjewel miners on the tracks in a show of solidarity.

UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith said he thinks Appalachian coal miners lost their sense for the power of unions in the coal slump in the 1970s. Mine employment was low for nearly a full generation of workers entering the labor force, Smith said, effectively breaking the chain of stories passed from father to son, stories of how unions improved working conditions and fought for better wages.

By 2017 there were no union miners left working in Harlan County, and only a handful in all of Kentucky.

Phil Smith worries that a weak union puts miners at risk of losing protections that previous generations of miners fought for. “The minute that a government who is intent on doing away with many of these worker protections feels like they can without there being any political blow-back from doing it, they’re going to do it,” he said.

Policies like so-called “Right to Work” laws, which have been passed in 28 states, including Kentucky and West Virginia, threaten the economic viability of unions. Still, Smith finds hope in teachers’ strikes around the country, and efforts to unionize other workplaces. “I think we’re seeing a resurgence in people making sure they have a voice at work.”

Curren Sheldon

A quiet moment for miners and their supporters.

Chris Lewis was one of the first five Blackjewel miners who blocked that train on July 29. The bankruptcy has been a struggle, he said, but he and his wife have it better than do workers with young children.

Lewis has complicated views on unions. “I was raised union, and I believe in the union. But I also believe in a man’s right to feed his family, you know what I’m saying?”

He resents miners who call strikebreakers “scabs.” Still, Lewis thinks he and his coworkers wouldn’t be in this predicament if they had been in a union.

After his experience with Blackjewel, Lewis isn’t ready to give up on the industry. But he is giving up on Kentucky. Lewis leaves Kentucky later this month for a job in a coal mine in Alabama. In that new job, he’ll be a part of a union.

‘The end game’

The uncertainty many Blackjewel miners feel about their future is true for the coal industry as a whole. Declining demand and competition from cheap natural gas from fracking has led to the closure of eight coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley since 2010, with more planned to shut down in the future.

“No matter what policies are developed and put forward in D.C.,” said the UMWA’s Phil Smith, “the fact of the matter is, coal-fired power plants are closing.”

Additionally, renewable energy makes up an increasing share of the nation’s energy portfolio. For the first time this year, renewable energy exceeded coal in percentage of energy generated in the United States.

In 1997, there were about 18,000 coal jobs in Kentucky. In 2017, there were about 6,200. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, coal production has fallen most sharply in Central Appalachia compared to other coal-producing regions.

Kentucky Coal Association spokesperson Tyler White said his group is committed to fighting for the longevity of the industry.

“The coal industry is still struggling with a lot of over-burdensome regulations that were put in place under the previous administration,” he said. Most energy analysts contest that view, and point instead to the market forces driving coal’s decline.

Similarly, the UMWA’s Smith said that he’s not ready to give up on coal. He fears significant regulation to prevent further climate climate could put the coal industry out of business, and he views the union’s role as advocating for policies that would promote clean, safe coal mining and keep miners employed for generations.

Blackjewel’s bankruptcy has been messier than most. But Clark Williams-Derry, the director of energy finance for Sightline Institute, a research organization based in Seattle, says we should expect more chaotic bankruptcies like it.

“We’re sort of in the early stages of the end game, I would say, of the coal economy,” he said.

Williams-Derry worries that in the chaos of Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, some mine lands may end up without money to pay for reclamation, and he thinks future bankruptcies may have the same result as fewer companies want to take on risky mines. The costs of worker pensions, land reclamation, and other debts may well be passed on to taxpayers, or left unpaid altogether.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” he said. “We don’t really know what happens when the industry is shrinking so rapidly that we see mines just simply abandoned.”

IMG_4328Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

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

Down The Line

A marathon bankruptcy hearing in federal court brought mixed news for the Blackjewel miners. The auction of Blackjewel properties attracted enough buyers to generate money to go toward some of the wages owed, and lawyers representing the miners were able to win some concessions from other Blackjewel creditors.

Still, when attorney Ned Pillersdorf addressed the protesting miners on the tracks, he was clearly managing expectations.

“You know I’ve told you that bankruptcy is kind of like a funeral home,” he said. “Nobody leaves happy.”

Kopper Glo, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based mining company that purchased some of Blackjewel’s Kentucky properties, has committed to pay $450,000 to cover miners’ wages. That is expected to cover about 35 percent of the total amount owed to Blackjewel workers. Kopper Glo has also said it hopes to rehire many of Blackjewel’s workers, though it has made no legal commitment to do so. Blackjewel miners worry Kopper Glo will pay less than Blackjewel did.

“I was a roof bolter, I made $25 an hour,” said Shane Smith. “A belt man, they make $22. A different company comes in, what’s to say everybody won’t make $20?”

Kopper Glo said it could not answer specific questions, but said in a press release that the company “has a plan to re-start certain operations and is confident this plan will bring jobs back to many of the former Blackjewel employees. Kopper Glo is also committed to funding to the portion of the back wages due to the employees.”

Miners_On_Tracks-63 (1)Curren Sheldon

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

In days spent occupying the train tracks, the Blackjewel miners have plenty of time to consider what their future holds. Do they return to work and hope their new employer doesn’t meet the same fate as the last? Do they try to retrain in a new industry? Or do they look for another job, knowing they may never make as much money as they did in the mines?

“This ain’t a game, we ain’t a bunch of kids,” said miner Caleb Blevins. “We’re grown men with families. Around here in the Appalachian mountains, this is all we got, the coal mines. We’re too far in to try to go to college for 12 years. Our kids need us now, not in 10 years.”

Miner Tim Madden also just wants to get back to business as usual. “I think if they’d roll up here and issue us all a check, I’d be out of here, end of story.”

But Curtis Cress said he’s done with the industry. “You never know from one day to the next if you’re going to have a job,” Cress said. “They’ll get you used to making a whole lot of money and then take it away.”

A father of four, Cress is at risk of losing his home. He says he feels hopeless about what comes next, both for him and for central Appalachia. He thinks his best bet is to find work in manufacturing. He hopes his kids leave the region when they’re old enough.

The miners occupying the Harlan County train tracks say they’ll stand down when they see Kopper Glo’s money in their bank accounts. With mining starting up again in some of Blackjewel’s former mines, some men will likely be headed back underground.

But for many miners, and for the coal industry as a whole, it’s hard to know what’s coming down the tracks.

Benny Becker, Brittany Patterson and Jeff Young contributed to this story.

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.”