Mine Closure Leaves Some Questioning The Future

Oct 18, 2018

Hundreds of miners have been laid off this week following the closure of the Pinnacle mine in Wyoming County, and the news has left some considering getting out of the industry altogether.

Bobby Bowman, president of the United Mine Workers of America chapter representing the employees, said the layoffs would take effect Thursday. About 300 employees were set to be let go, a UMWA spokesman said -- just months after another 90 had lost their jobs in late July.

Stan East had just come out from underground Monday when the incoming night shift told him the mine’s operating company, Tennessee-based Mission Coal, had filed for bankruptcy. A father of three grown children, East worked at the Pinnacle mine for 10 years, and his dad had worked there, too. But the instability is taking its toll.

"I’m just stressed -- just a little stressed about it," said East, of Princeton. "I’m just gonna do something different. It’s been up and down since I’ve been here. I mean, coal’s good now, but I’m 46 years old, and in three to four years, it could go back the same way, and I could be looking for another job."

Management at the mine stopped production because water was building up, according to Phil Smith, a UMWA spokesman. Getting the remaining reserves would mean installing a new shaft and other expensive processes. Some buyers were looking into purchasing the mine, but ultimately decided against it.

In a press release last week, Gov. Jim Justice said he hopes the mine can reopen and that he’s "working on it.” He said he’s asked the state Commerce Department to get involved as well. What those efforts might look like aren’t clear.

Major Contributor

Pinnacle was one of the largest employers in Wyoming County and draws a workforce from McDowell and other neighboring counties. According to the Wyoming County assessor, the county will likely see a $1.37 million dollar loss in machinery, equipment and inventory tax revenue and another $51,000 in real estate taxes. The school district will lose an estimated $1 million from its budget.

Wyoming County Schools Superintendent Deirdre Cline is trying to remain hopeful but said the situation is bleak.

"It does have a very detrimental impact on our families ... the children that we serve whose parents work or have livelihood from that coal company, but also in a general sense to our whole economy of southern West Virginia, specfiically in Wyoming County," she said.

Bowman, of the UMWA local, one of the largest chapters in southern West Virginia, has been sharing regular updates with the Pinnacle community on his Facebook page and by phone.

"You’re looking at Wyoming, McDowell, Mingo, Tazewell County, Mercer County, and Raleigh County -- [they're] gonna take a bit hit when the money that normally comes into these counties per year by the people who work there [doesn't]. It’ll be a large, large hit," he said in an interview.

He predicted that about 3,200 jobs could be affected by the mine closure, counting auxiliary jobs that support the industry.

The union has had two meetings with the UMWA career center to help displaced workers.

"A lot of people have quit and went and found other jobs in mining," Bowman said. "There’s a lot of them there at the moment. So the impact, for some, won’t be as bad."

Updating Resumes

But some, like Stan East, are leaving the industry altogether. He said he’ll get $5,000 from the career center to help train for a new job. Bowman said he’ll probably move on, too.

In an interview earlier this month, James Mullins, another Pinnacle miner, described a stressful situation for his wife and three kids, and he’s also thinking of getting out of the field.

"Right now, I’m updating my resume and hoping I can find a job soon, I’m not really prepared," he said.

A message left in person for the mine manager went unreturned, but Mission Coal did send a statement. It didn’t mention Pinnacle by name but said the bankruptcy was quote “a continuation of its efforts to stabilize its business.”

According to Smith from the UMWA, Pinnacle employees will be paid any wages they’re owed even though the company is in bankruptcy because the company’s filing includes a provision to allow for that. They’ll get six months of health insurance coverage from the layoff date. The company will keep 60 workers to run the on-site preparation plant.

Mission Coal was formed in January through a reorganization that consolidated Seneca Coal Resources, LLC and Seminole Coal Resources, LLC.