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Coal hard cash

Timeline for Briefs Set in Blackjewel ‘Hot Goods’ Case, Miner Pay Remains Murky



Protesting miners blocked the tracks in the morning fog. Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource

The federal judge presiding over coal operator Blackjewel LLC’s bankruptcy has set a timeline in the “hot goods” dispute over millions of dollars worth of coal sitting in railcars in Kentucky and Virginia.

Frank Volk, chief U.S. bankruptcy judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, 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.

Volk 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.

While the timeline provides some clarity about the future of the coal in question, Friday’s hearing highlighted continued uncertainty about if and how hundreds of miners across the region will be paid millions of dollars in owed wages. 

The Labor Department says the coal is “hot goods.” Under the federal Fair Labor Standard Act, workers must be paid at least minimum wage or the things they produce can’t legally be moved or sold. More than 1,000 former Blackjewel employees across West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia are still awaiting their final paychecks more than two months after the company declared bankruptcy. 

“The FLSA has put the prohibition in place to discourage employers from benefiting from the uncompensated work of the employees,” Samantha Thomas, associate regional solicitor for the Labor Department, told the court during the Friday status hearing. “It’s about making sure that employers that actually abide by the law are not unfairly treated — because here’s BJMS and Blackjewel being able to profit off of the fact that [sic] they’re able to move coal that they didn’t really pay for in terms of workers being paid for their work.”

Volk asked the Department of Labor about its “end game” for the coal sitting on the tracks. 

Thomas said that in the case the judge does affirm the coal cannot be moved, the agency would hope Blackjewel, BJMS or “another party” would step up and pay the owed wages so the coal would no longer be considered “hot goods.”

BJMS attorney Sean George told the court it was extremely unlikely BJMS would do that.  

“My understanding, candidly with all, is that there is no possibility that BJMS is going to pay more than $1.4 million that it’s agreed to pay,” he said.

BJMS and Blackjewel argue not allowing the coal to be sold deprives the court from using the proceeds to pay creditors, including workers. The two companies have agreed BJMS will pay $1.4 million for the coal, and if sold, have agreed to set the money aside for possible use to pay owed wages. During a hearing earlier this month, the companies also argued the coal is degrading in the railcars and losing value. 

“That sounds like the end game is to inflict economic duress on the parties by prohibiting the movement of coal,” said Scott Kane, an attorney with Squire Patton Boggs, representing Blackjewel. “Certainly the debtors will argue that in these particular circumstances, that doesn’t further anyone’s interest, including the interests of the employee creditors, who are owed those FLSA wages.”

In a notice filed Thursday, the Department of Labor noted back wages owed to workers directly involved in producing the “hot goods” coal in Kentucky and Virginia totals more than $3 million. 

“In other words, the wages for the uncompensated work that resulted in the production of the hot goods at issue total more than $3 million – more than double the amount Blackjewel and BJMS ask this Court to force DOL to accept and to release the coal,” agency attorneys wrote

A temporary restraining order against the rail cars in Kentucky issued in district court is set to expire on Sept. 20. The Labor Department said it’s open to shifting the Kentucky railcars to allow work at the nearby mine to restart if approved by a judge. 

Sam Petsonk, an attorney representing Appalachian Blackjewel workers, told the court in addition to the train being blocked by court order, dozens of miners, now in their seventh week of protest, are camped on the railroad tracks blocking the train. 

“It is miners themselves who continue day by day to also, in their own capacity, apart from the injunction, to block the movement of that train,” he said. “They wanted that action to reflect their intentions and preferences and interests as to whether it is in their interest for this coal to move before the back payment is made.”

The miners have pledged to remain on the tracks until they are paid.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Coal hard cash

Murray Energy CEO Lashes Out At “Feckless” Federal Officials Over Coal Subsidy Plan



This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Coal executive Bob Murray clashed Monday with federal energy regulators at a Lexington, Kentucky, energy forum over what Murray called a failure by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to sufficiently support the struggling coal industry. 

“The word that I’ve been using to describe FERC is feckless,” Murray told the audience, including FERC Chairman Neil Chatterjee. 

Murray wanted FERC, which regulates the wholesale transmission of energy, to enact a Trump Administration proposal that would have subsidized coal-fired power plants and helped keep them competitive with cheaper natural gas. Murray Energy and other coal companies argue that without enough coal in the nation’s fuel mix the electric grid could become unreliable, posing a risk to national security.

“What natural gas is available, you know, it comes in a finite pipe,” Murray said. “People forget that too, that these gas wells aren’t going to last. This glut of gas is not going to last.” 

The proposal was widely criticized and FERC rejected the idea last year. Murray and other coal industry actors viewed that as a failure by FERC to prioritize the resiliency of the power grid to threats from extreme weather events. 

Chatterjee personally invited Murray to speak, knowing that he would be harshly critical. “He was obviously sharply critical of the commission and the decision we made,” Chatterjee said. “And that’s precisely what I hoped to achieve by inviting him here: to start the dialogue.”

FERC and the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research hosted the event, which Chatterjee called a frank discussion away from the politics of Washington, D.C. Attendees included executives from fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable energy industries, and regulatory agencies from states across the country. They discussed the future of America’s energy mix, “all of the above” strategies and more aggressive action to address climate change, such as the Green New Deal proposal. 

Other coal industry leaders had prominent roles. Alliance Research Partners CEO Joe Craft sat at Chatterjee’s left hand during a buffet-style lunch, and former Peabody Energy executive Fred Palmer took center stage in a panel about retraining displaced coal sector workers. 

The coal industry has struggled in recent years as a mix of efficiency, renewable energy and especially natural gas from fracking have made coal less competitive. Major bankruptcies have shaken the industry, and Bob Murray’s company could be next. Murray Energy has been in the news lately for mounting financial problems, and industry observers anticipate a bankruptcy announcement. Murray Energy is based in Ohio and the company claims to be the country’s largest underground mine company, with about 6,000 employees.

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Coal hard cash

Blackjewel Miners Likely to Receive Pay in DOL Deal



Photo: Courtesy of Ned Pillersdorf

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The Department of Labor and a company associated with Blackjewel agreed this week to put nearly $5.75 million toward coal miners left unpaid in the company’s chaotic bankruptcy. 

The July 1 bankruptcy of one of the nation’s largest coal companies left 1,100 coal miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia out of work and without weeks of pay. The potential deal comes after a nearly two-month-long protest by unpaid miners, who blockaded a railroad to stop over a million dollars worth of coal from leaving Harlan County, Kentucky. The U.S. Department of Labor intervened with a motion supporting the miners’ claim that delivering the coal would violate fair labor standards.

Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney representing miners in Blackjewel’s eastern division, said if the miners’ claims are not resolved soon, Harlan County and neighboring impacted counties could experience recessions in their already tenuous economies. 

While the deal has not been formalized, Pillersdorf said he expects a firm commitment in the coming days. Pillersdorf said in exchange for the backpay, the Department of Labor will withdraw its motion to stop coal from leaving Harlan County over fair labor violations. 

I’m thrilled with the Department of Labor,” Pillersdorf said. “It’s a very positive step, and it sounds like it’s going to happen.”

The funds would likely come from Blackjewel Marketing and Sales Holdings, the entity that owns the approximately $1.4 million in coal the miners blockaded. But BMSH only has one customer: Blackjewel itself. And Blackjewel has long maintained it does not have the funds to compensate its former employees.

“I just hope it covers at least our bounced check,” said David Pratt Jr., a former Blackjewel miner who has not yet been paid for his last weeks of work for the bankrupt firm. 

The Appalachian miners will proceed with claims against Blackjewel regarding their 401(k)s and vacation time, as well as their original wage claims. The agreement with the Department of Labor, however, would reduce the value of that claim. 

A spokesperson for Blackjewel could not immediately answer a request for comment.

Further hearings to finalize the deal and pursue miners’ additional claims are being scheduled for later this month.

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Coal hard cash

Former Blackjewel Miners End Railroad Blockade in Kentucky



A miner who joined the protest holds his young son on the third day of the protest. More than 1100 miners were laid off, many still waiting their final wages from BlackJewel LLC. Photo: Curren Sheldon

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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. 

At one point, more than 100 people came to the protest-site to help pass out food, bring water and ice, and relieve those who had stayed on the tracks during the daily protests. Photo: Curren Sheldon

Felicia Cress is married to a former Blackjewel miner, and has been at the protest since the first day. 

“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.” 

Felicia’s 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. 

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 month. The 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. 

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