Laid-Off Coal Miners Say They Will Block Train Until They Get Back Pay
By Chris Kenning
August 1, 2019 - Protesting Kentucky coal miners entered their fourth day Thursday blocking a coal train from leaving a bankrupt Harlan County mine — demanding weeks of back pay on the same day their former employer’s assets are set to go up for auction.
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.
Miners block train tracks in Harlan County, Kentucky on July 30.
Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource
Blackjewel has coal operations in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming, and its assets go up for auction in Cincinnati Thursday. Contura Energy has offered $20.6 million for mines in Wyoming and West Virginia.
It wasn’t clear late Wednesday how many others were bidding and how the outcome would impact Blackjewel’s Kentucky mines, which are centered in Harlan County.
But the company's collapse left more than a quarter of this Appalachian coal county’s miners jobless at a time when some have dimming hopes in President Donald Trump’s long-promised coal revival.
Some said they supported Trump but wanted to hear from him.
"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 Cumberland on Wednesday night.
Nearby, a sign read, "No Pay, We Stay," and included the hashtag #bloodyharlan, a reference to the area’s history of clashes between coal mining unions and employers in the 1930s and 1970s.
Since the bankruptcy, Harlan County’s miners have struggled with overdrawn bank accounts, payments on houses and electric bills. Some said 401k contributions hadn’t been properly credited to their accounts for months. Many have been relying on charity, unemployment or considering changing careers amid coal’s long decline here.
The bankruptcy the nation's sixth-largest U.S. coal producer came after a string of other major coal producer 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.”
Background: Miners who say they haven't been paid block train tracks to protest bankrupt coal company
Kentucky State Police have allowed the protest, and CSX, which operates that train, said they were monitoring the situation and hoped for a quick resolution. The company declined to provide any additional information. Miners said the engines were allowed to leave, but not the coal.
“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 Mine worker.
The protest site has come to resemble a camp. Tents hold donated supplies - water bottles, chewing tobacco, camping supplies such as insect spray and food brought daily by local restaurants. Empty pizza boxes were stacked high.
Miners milled about sharing news and commiserating about financial struggles as children played. Some sat on folding chairs on the tracks. Cars passing by honked in support. On a cooler was a list of people who had signed up to attend a bankruptcy hearing in West Virginia on Monday.
Chris Lewis, a miner eating Spaghetti out of a donated Styrofoam box, helped start the protest on 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. Kentucky Attorney General candidate Greg Stumbo, a grandson of a coal miner, said he planned to visit on Thursday.
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