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‘I think Trump needs to show his face’: Laid-off miners losing faith in coal promises

2 weeks ago
Charlie Sprang
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Chris Kenning
Louisville Courier-Journal

CUMBERLAND, Ky. — Protesting Kentucky coal miners sweated through a fourth day on top of a railroad track as they continued blocking a coal train from leaving a Harlan County mine.

Recently laid off, the miners are demanding weeks of back pay from their bankrupt employer as the company assets were put up for auction Thursday.

Images of frustrated coal miners playing cornhole on the railroad tracks helped draw national attention to the July 1 bankruptcy of mining company Blackjewel, which came without warning and sparked financial turmoil when paychecks bounced.

That led former Attorney General Greg Stumbo, who is running for the office again and who visited the site of the coal standoff Thursday, to declare that state Labor Cabinet officials should be fired for failing to realize that Blackjewel had not posted a state-required payroll bond meant to protect miners in such cases.

Blackjewel and its affiliates have coal operations in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming, and its assets went up for auction in Cincinnati on Thursday. Contura Energy has said it would offer $20.6 million for mines in Wyoming and West Virginia.

On Thursday evening it wasn’t yet known how many others were bidding and how the outcome would affect Blackjewel’s Kentucky mines, which are centered in Harlan County.

In the wake of a coal company’s bankruptcy, over a thousand miners in Appalachia and Wyoming are out of work and many without their last paychecks. Alton Strupp, Louisville Courier Journal

But Blackjewel’s collapse left more than a quarter of Harlan County’s miners jobless. Some say they have nearly given up on President Donald Trump’s long-promised coal revival.

“I think Trump needs to show his face” in Harlan County, said miner Scott Mefford, who was among the dozens of miners on the train tracks near a sign that read, “No Pay, We Stay.”

The sign included the hashtag #bloodyharlan, a reference to the area’s history of union and coal company clashes in the 1930s and 1970s.

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic candidate for president, tweeted that he stands “in solidarity” with the miners. “I say to Blackjewel: Pay your workers now.”

Since the bankruptcy, Harlan County’s miners have struggled with overdrawn bank accounts, payments on houses and electric bills.

Some said 401(k) contributions hadn’t been properly credited to their accounts for months. Many have been relying on charity, unemployment or are considering changing careers amid coal’s long decline here.

“Our husbands worked for that money,” said Sherrie Bowman, who said that her electric was temporarily disconnected and that she hasn’t been able to get her son for critical medical treatment in Lexington.

The bankruptcy of the nation’s sixth-largest U.S. coal producer came after a string of other major coal company bankruptcies in recent years, including Blackhawk and Wyoming-based Cloud Peak Energy in May.

Blackjewel did not return a request for comment, but former CEO Jeff Hoops in court papers has blamed competition from natural gas, environmental regulations and other factors.

In a letter to employees written last month and published by a Kentucky TV station, Hoops said, “I accept responsibility for being unable to lead this company through these difficult times.”

While visiting the site Thursday, Stumbo said an investigation should be launched into whether the bankruptcy violated civil or criminal laws.

“They had to see this coming. And that makes it all the more egregious,” he said.

He also blasted the Kentucky Labor Cabinet and its secretary, David Dickerson, who a day earlier told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Blackjewel did not post a payment bond with the state as required.
Under state law, such bonds are required for companies less than five years old to cover a month of payroll.

Dickerson said there was no mechanism for the cabinet to know when such a company opens in the state.Stumbo wasn’t satisfied.

“The Labor Cabinet for some reason didn’t do their job, and they all ought to be fired,” Stumbo said. “They didn’t do it and they all ought to be fired for sitting on their hind ends in Frankfort and not getting that done.”

A cabinet spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Stumbo said Attorney General Andy Beshear, who is running for governor, is examining whether all Kentucky mine operators have posted payment bonds.

Beasher, who recently met with miners in Harlan, said several weeks ago that he appointed a dedicated investigator to look into the issue of clawed-back paychecks.

Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown said, “At this point, we can only confirm that, under KRS 337.200, Blackjewel should have posted a bond to assure the payment of all due wages, and it was the Labor Cabinet’s duty to secure it.”

Kentucky state police have allowed the protest, and CSX, which operates that train and owns the tracks, said it was monitoring the situation and hoped for a quick resolution.

Miners allowed the train engines to leave, but a long line of open coal cars sat idle near the protest site Thursday.

“They’re sneaking and loading trains and sending coal out, so where is the money going?” said Sara Kelly, who stood next to her husband, Joshua Kelly, a laid-off Huff Creek mineworker, who wants the coal to be sold for back pay.

The protest site has come to resemble a camp, with some sleeping overnight in cars and chairs and tents, and others returning each day.

The site has been inundated with donated supplies — water bottles, chewing tobacco, camping supplies and food brought daily by local restaurants. Canned sodas sat in a kiddie pool filled with ice.

On Thursday, a fire next to the tracks smoldered from the night before as miners shared news and commiserated about financial struggles under canopies, including some donated by a funeral home.
Some sat on folding chairs on the tracks. Cars passing by honked in support.

People signed on to a list of those attending a bankruptcy hearing in West Virginia on Monday. Several miners conducted remote interviews.

Chris Lewis, a miner eating spaghetti out of a donated Styrofoam box, helped start the protest Monday when he saw coal being loaded out of the closed mine.

“It made me mad,” he said. “Every family is hurting real bad. We just want our back pay. I’m in the hole more than $2,000.”

The plight of miners has now drawn the attention of politicians such as Gov. Matt Bevin, who on social media urged people to donate to the miners. He said Monday that the Labor Cabinet will open an investigation into the company.

“The way Blackjewel has treated these miners in Harlan County is shameful and outrageous,” Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell said in a statement. His Democratic rival, Amy McGrath, who visited the protest site Thursday, called it “a real injustice.”

Some miners said if the auction or bankruptcy proceedings didn’t produce a buyer to reopen the mines, they might have to uproot their families to seek coal jobs in Alabama or jobs in cities.

Many said there were few other options in the region that paid as well.

“I’d have to leave most likely, but we don’t want to. This is our home,” Mefford said.

If they do get news of a potential buyer for their mines, miner Dalton Lewis said they planned to stay until they get their back pay.

“We’re going to be out here for as long as it takes,” he said.

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