UPDATE | Cleanup requirements hold up sale of Blackjewel coal mines

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HARLAN COUNTY, Ky. (WYMT/AP) -- UPDATE 10/1/19 @ 1:44 p.m.
Cleanup requirements are holding up the sale of a bankrupt coal company's mines in Wyoming and Appalachia.

The Blackjewel miners in Harlan County, who have been blocking train cars hauling coal from leaving Cloverlick #3 Mine, are wrapping up their protest Thursday. (Source: WYMT)

West Virginia-based Blackjewel proposes to sell mines including the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr operations in Wyoming to an affiliate of Alabama-based FM Coal with help from Tennessee-based Contura Energy.

A surety company for FM Coal announced Wednesday that Blackjewel must transfer permits and cleanup bonding for its 135 permits in Appalachia before doing so in Wyoming. The bonds would help ensure cleanup of mines that close permanently.

The Casper Star-Tribune reports the request took FM Coal by surprise.

Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr production has all but ceased and over 500 Wyoming workers are furloughed since Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy July 1.

Blackjewel attorneys say the companies will seek replacement bonds.

UPDATE 10/1/19 @ 1:23 p.m.
The nearly two-month-long Blackjewel protest in Cumberland came to an end last Thursday, but the actions attorneys and lawyers are making in a West Virginia bankruptcy courtroom is far from over.

Monday afternoon, our sister station WYMT learned the negotiations between Blackjewel and attorneys representing Blackjewel miners did not work.

Now, the court will intervene with court-ordered mediation between the two parties, a federal magistrate will sit in. The mediation will be private.

There are eight lawyers and attorneys representing the nearly 1,100 former Blackjewel miners in the eastern region, one of them being attorney Ned Pillersdorf.

Late Monday afternoon, Pillersdorf addressed a room of roughly 20 Blackjewel miners and family members in Leslie County about the most recent updates.

"I mean this has gone on too long," he said to the group. Pillersdorf has held meetings like this on an almost weekly basis. He will go live from his personal Facebook in hopes of reaching as many of the 1,100 as possible.

"This has been going on since July and time is the enemy of the Blackjewel miners," he said.

The progress of Blackjewel's bankruptcy case in the courtroom is non-existant. While tied up in negotiations, and now mediation, the case has not progressed.

He is hopeful that a federal magistrate involved will speed up the process. Pillersdorf said he is often successful during mediations, but the Blackjewel case is complex.

"However this is certainly not a typical case. This case has a lot of moving parts, and a lot at stake," he said.

One of the most impactful 'moving parts' is the order by the Department of Labor placing a 'hot goods' order on the coal the miners were blocking in Cumberland.

After 59 days, the miners stopped blocking the 75-cars of coal on the tracks, but the order from the government prevents it from leaving the mine regardless.

Initially, the order helped the miners. It kept more than $1 million in coal from leaving, but now it has become a pivotal negotiating tool in getting the miners paid.

"While we appreciate their effort on behalf of the miners it's had the unintended consequence of bringing the bankruptcy hearing to a screeching halt," Pillersdorf added.

Blackjewel Marketing and Sales wants the coal. They bought it, and will likely negotiate to get the 'hot goods' order lifted so they can complete the sale of it. This will likely be discussed in mediation later this month.

"What comes next? There's no telling," added Pillersdorf. "If there's successful mediation this is over sooner rather than later, the bankruptcy gets resolved, hopefully the mines reopen, the miners go back to work and we get them a compensation package. But you never know, bankruptcy court is not a good place to go if you are a wage earner."

Mediations will begin on Oct. 15 in Charleston, West Virginia.

UPDATE 9/26/19 @ 12:12 p.m.
A nearly two-months-long saga is coming to an end, our sister station WYMT reports.

The Blackjewel miners in Harlan County, who have been blocking train cars hauling coal from leaving Cloverlick #3 Mine, are wrapping up their protest Thursday.

Non-profit With Love From Harlan tells WYMT the protesters are packing up and leaving the tracks.

The protest started after Blackjewel LLC declared bankruptcy, which caused miners' checks to bounce. On July 29, several miners climbed onto the tracks to prevent a train hauling Blackjewel coal from leaving. This grew into a tent city as miners, their families, and friends rallied around the mantra, "No pay, we stay."

By the end of September, many of the miners enrolled in schools, found new jobs, or moved. Several hearings in bankruptcy court led to a judge asking the respective parties to conduct confidential negotiations, with a deadline of Oct. 1. If no deal is made by then, court-ordered mediation is the likely outcome.

At this time, the miners have still not received the paychecks owed to them.

WYMT has a reporter headed to Harlan County to learn more about why the protesters decided to leave.

Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest information.

UPDATE 8/23/19 @ 12:39 p.m.
A federal judge made a ruling Friday on whether to release Blackjewel coal from Harlan County, Kentucky. Unpaid miners have blocked the movement of that coal for about four weeks.

The coal in question is several thousand tons. It is worth between $5 million and $6 million. The U.S. Labor Department labeled that coal weeks ago as "hot goods" -- meaning it can not be sold or moved based on congressional authority. The labor department's position is that, until the miners receive back pay, no sale should happen.

The hearing, which began at 10 a.m. Friday, took about an hour and a half. Ultimately, the judge ruled the case needs an evidentiary hearing with expert testimony. Our sister station WYMT reports the judge requested a hearing within 10 to 14 days to determine the coal's fate.

The problem for Blackjewel is that the coal has already been sold. A company already paid Blackjewel 75 percent of what it is owed. The two companies signed a contract for the coal.

However, lawyers for Blackjewel said during the hearing the coal is deteriorating and losing its worth over time. They claim that, eventually, BJMS will no longer want the coal as its value declines due to oxidization.

Blackjewel's lawyers argued that if the court allowed the coal to move, finalizing the sale, they would put $1.4 million into a separate account and the bankruptcy court would decide where that money goes.

Attorneys were ordered by the judge to meet in a room at the federal courthouse Friday to figure out a date for the hearing.

Keep checking the WSAZ app for the latest information.



UPDATE 8/11/19 @ 8:10 p.m.
We have learned that all former Blackjewel miners now have access to their 401k funds.

In a release posted Saturday by the company, officials say the plan is terminated.

That means miners who were locked out before can either get that money now or roll it over to an individual retirement account of their choosing.



UPDATE 8/8/19 @ 10:45 a.m.
The sites previously operated by Blackjewel LLC -- a coal mining company that filed for bankruptcy, leaving Kentucky miners without paychecks and benefits -- have new ownership.

Kopper Glo Mining LLC was the successful bidder at an auction in Cincinnati, Ohio this week. The company, based out of Knoxville, Tennessee, bought mines in Harlan and Letcher counties.

"The Management of the Company has a plan to re-start certain operations and is confident this plan will bring jobs back to many of the former Blackjewel employees," a press release from Kopper Glo Mining states. "Kopper Glo is also committed to funding to the portion of the back wages due to the employees."

A group of laid off miners from Harlan County, Kentucky has protested for more than a week on the railroad tracks in Cumberland, blocking the coal from moving as employees go unpaid.

You can read Kopper Glo's full statement about the acquisition.

Meanwhile, Blackjewel is dealing with bankruptcy court. Some of the miners traveled to Charleston, West Virginia to attend, but for those who couldn't be there, our sister station WYMT reports Attorney Ned Pillersdorf met with hundreds of miners and their families Wednesday at the railroad tracks to brief them on what happened.

UPDATE 8/5/19 @ 10:27 a.m.
Miners from Harlan County, Kentucky arrived at the federal courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia Monday morning for a Blackjewel LLC bankruptcy hearing.

They wore bright tee shirts that read, "Pay the miners first... the lawyers last."

The company filed for bankruptcy, leaving miners without paychecks, 401ks and health benefits. A group of laid off Harlan County coal miners has been blocking a railroad track in Cumberland, Kentucky.

UPDATE 8/1/19 @ 1:01 p.m.
Nearly 100 rail cars loaded with about $1 million worth in coal are still going nowhere in Harlan County, almost 72 hours after Blackjewel LLC miners first got on the tracks to block the train from leaving.

The company filed for bankruptcy, leaving miners without paychecks, 401ks and health benefits. A group of laid off Harlan County coal miners is now blocking a railroad track in Cumberland, Kentucky.

On Wednesday, the miners came to an agreement with CSX officials to let the locomotives leave if they left the coal.

"Our main objective is to get our money and make sure we still get our money, because even if we leave they can still come down these tracks, get the coal and disappear," said Austin Watts, a Blackjewel miner.

Meanwhile, Blackjewel mines could be sold on Thursday. WYMT reports the auction could last well into the night.

The auction is at the Squire Patton Boggs law firm in Cincinnati, where Blackjewel's attorney, Stephen Lerner, is located.

The mines up for auction include Blackjewel's mines in Wyoming, Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. If the mines in Kentucky do not sell, Blackjewel's mines would go into liquidation, meaning all the assets on the site would have to be sold. If the mines in Kentucky do sell, operations could resume at the mines.

WYMT sent a crew to the Squire Patton Boggs to be present at the auction. The law office is located on the 19th floor of the Omnicare building in downtown Cincinnati. The station was told it was a private auction and the media and public could not attend.

When asked for comment about the auction, representatives with the firm said that they were “not in a position to make any sort of comment about that today.”

The former CEO of Blackjewel wrote a letter in July to employees after bankruptcy left coal miners without paychecks for weeks. In the letter, Jeff Hoops apologized and promised that half the money recovered would be distributed equally to employees harmed by the collapse of the company.

Each day the miners do not get paid, they are protesting on the tracks, making sure none of the coal-loaded trains coming from the mine in Cloverlick are able to get in or out.

The Blackjewel miners have been on the tracks for more than 48 hours. Some have been sleeping there.

Spirits were high Wednesday as they had visitors from United Miners Workers of America, Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley and attorney Ned Pillersdorf.

While the piles of food and water keep growing by the hour, the struggles continue as no money is coming in.

Miner Shane Smith's son, Mason, turned seven Wednesday but with no income, the family struggled to put together money for a gift.

"It hurts. It hurts bad," said Smith. "I always told myself when I got older, I’m gonna give my kids, I’m giving my kids what I never had and that’s what I try to do and that’s what I’m gonna continue to do."

Smith stays on the tracks and continues to fight to be able to provide for his family.

"This coal can’t leave Harlan County unless it goes to pay these miners the wages they’re due," said Mosley.

Mosley says he is proud of the miners for keeping it peaceful and allowing CSX to move their engine.

"They never intended to try to harm any other miners from going to work on a daily basis and that has been proven as a result of today," said Mosley.

Pillersdorf has put together a team of eight lawyers to represent the miners.

"This is really not a bankruptcy, this is a scheme to beat them out of wages and we’ve sued Mr. Hoops and his son and Lexington coal and said they’re the same as Blackjewel and they are really not bankrupt," said Pillersdorf.

He is doing it for free.

"I’m not charging these miners anything. I’m just not," said Pillersdorf. "But their voices need to be heard and I’ve encouraged all of them to show up in West Virginia."

A bankruptcy hearing is scheduled for Monday in Charleston, West Virginia. Mosley is preparing ways to transport the miners so they can be seen and heard.

UPDATE 7/31/19 @ 6:14 a.m.
As the third day of the Blackjewel mining protests continue, those involved are stressing that they want things to stay peaceful.
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"This is what we're trying to do, we're trying to let people know 'hey, we're not here to hurt anybody, cause no trouble. We've been peaceful and we just want our money, that's all we want, we just want the money that we worked for. We're not expecting our jobs back. We're not gonna try and sit here and fool nobody," said Jeffrey Willig, a miner who has been at the protest since the beginning.

WYMT's Connor James reports the overnight crowd of miners and their families just outside Cumberland more than tripled in size from the numbers they had Monday night.

The protesters say they have more food than they know what to do with and thank the community for their support.

"We've got enough pizzas to feed probably the whole city of Harlan and there's still more coming, and it's wonderful to see how much our community really sees that what we're trying to do is right. And all we want to do is get our money, that's it," said Austin Watts, who has been at the protest since Monday afternoon.

WYMT learned the bankruptcy hearing that was originally scheduled for Wednesday in Charleston, West Virginia is now scheduled for Saturday.


UPDATE 7/30/19 @ 3:50 p.m.
It has now been nearly 24 hours since a group of laid off Harlan County miners started blocking a railroad track in Cumberland. A train pulling coal from the mine that left them without paychecks, 401ks and health benefits is at a standstill.

The miners are emotionally and physically exhausted, but they stand by their promise to not move until they get the money they are owed. These men and their families feel abandoned and forgotten by the company that owes them thousands.

Jeff Willig and his wife have six kids. All of them start school in two weeks, and as the days go on Willig is tired of not knowing where his money is or when it is coming.

"We go in, next thing you know we get called back out and don't know what's going on. 'Guys, we will wall you tomorrow or sometime this week.' I've called Blackjewel myself personally," said Willig. "No one will give you any answers. Still no pay, nothing, nothing at all."

The group of miners are handling the circumstances as well as they can, but still say they will not move until they get their pay.

Several groups brought the protesters food and water. First Baptist Church came from Westminister, South Carolina to help. JonEvan Jack's out of Corbin cooked the miners burgers and catfish.

UPDATE 7/30/19 @ 11 a.m.
Tuesday afternoon will mark 24 hours since Blackjewel miners first saw a train loaded with coal they mined for free.

Miners are still set up a few miles down the railroad tracks, where they are blocking the train from leaving the Cloverlick #3 Mine. They were asked to leave a different location on the tracks Monday night, so they moved to this spot instead.

All of the miners out there have not been paid. Some are $3,000 in the hole, with their accounts frozen and bills delinquent.

"To get off these tracks today is for the company to contact each and every one of these miners for the whole company and say 'your money will be handed back to you within whatever amount of days.' But if we can be guaranteed that our money is going to be handed back to us, we can leave these tracks," said Chris Rowe, a Cloverlick #3 miner.

The miners have signs that read "no pay, we stay." Cars and trucks driving by are honking in support, and the community is rallying behind them.

UPDATE 7/30/19 @ 7:45 a.m.
More than 20 miners and their families camped out on the train tracks near Cumberland Monday night to make sure none of the coal loaded on the trains coming from the mine in Cloverlick was able to get in or out.

Miners have one clear message: Pay them for what they worked for. One of them told our Connor James that until they get some answers, they have no intention of moving.

"We get our money, this load of coal that's on this train can go by. But until then, they'll be no trains coming in, they'll be no trains going out," said Shane Smith, one of the miners affected by the Blackjewel bankruptcy.

Smith also told WYMT that he would go to jail before he would move, an answer that was common with some of the other miners participating in the protest.

"You know, we're doing without money, food and everything else before our kids are starting back to school. We can't even get clothes or nothing else for them, so it was like a kick in the face. That's basically what it was," said Chris Rowe, who worked at the Cloverlick #3 mine.

We're told the miners and their families plan on working in shifts to keep the tracks blocked.

Overnight, people from the community brought food, water and chairs to those involved in the protest.

UPDATE 7/29/19 10 p.m.
Miners and their families re-gathered at Sandhill Bottom and are blocking a train on the tracks.

The Mayor of Cumberland Charles Raleigh says around 60 to 100 people are blocking the tracks.

According to the Tri-City News, miners have started a corn hole tournament on the tracks.

ORIGINAL STORY 7/29/19
Blackjewel miners are confused and frustrated as they try to find out why a train is carrying coal away from a mine in Harlan County. Some chose to take it into their own hands by standing on the tracks to keep the train from leaving.

WYMT began receiving messages before noon Monday about a train hauling something away from Cloverlick Mine 1.

The mine belongs to Revelation Energy LLC, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 1st along with its affiliate Blackjewel LLC. Since then, Blackjewel miners have been without work and without pay.

Viewer-submitted photos show the train loaded up with coal. A skeleton crew worked around the train.

Small groups of miners and individuals came to and from the mine's gate. They tried yelling to the crew on the other side of the fence, asking what is happening to the coal. At least one miner was heard asking when he and his co-workers would be paid.

"Pay us. That's all we want, our money, what we worked for, pay us. Regardless of if the company starts back up or not, they need to pay the men, cause we went in there and did do the job for them, you know what I'm saying?" said Chris Lewis, a former miner who is owed around $4,000.

So far, no one on the other side of the gate has responded.

Around 4:00 p.m. a group of five miners, most of whom worked at the Cloverlick mine, got on the tracks. Another man joined not long after. They are currently staring down the train and refusing to move, forcing the train to a standstill.

"They're sitting here loading trains. So that's exactly what we're doing," said one miner.

Police arrived at the scene and asked the protesters to step off of the tracks. We are told the protests have continued, but the train has been allowed to pass.

WYMT reached out to Blackjewel's bankruptcy attorney for an explanation but they have not heard back yet.


Blackjewel miners are confused and frustrated as they try to find out why a train is carrying coal away from a mine in Harlan County. Some chose to take it into their own hands by standing on the tracks to keep the train from leaving.
Miners from Harlan County, Kentucky arrived at the federal courthouse in Charleston, West Virginia for a Blackjewel LLC bankruptcy hearing. (Source: WSAZ)


 
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