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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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. Billy 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.”