Voices from the Coalfields

In issuing her order to move Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy case from New York to St. Louis, Bankruptcy Judge Shelley Chapman pointed to the “hundreds of hand-written
letters … received by the Court from the people whose hands mine the Debtors’ coal and their widows and children.”

These very personal and emotional statements clearly influenced her decision. The United Mine Workers had made a strong case that the bankruptcy court should not decide this case in the financial capital of New York, but in the heartland where coal was mined and lives were affected by the outcome.

Many of the letters, Judge Chapman wrote “enclosed family pictures, or lists of ailments and medications. Some of them asked for a personal response. All of them were respectful, and compelling. This decision reflects the Court’s attempt to craft a just and balanced solution to the question of which bankruptcy court will become the next custodian not only of these cases but also of these letters.”

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That’s a powerful statement about the validity of the comments from the coalfields, from these mining families that had given their lives to the success of Peabody Coal Co., which in turn had dumped them. They landed in a Peabody shell, a new company, Patriot Coal, which got little of the lucrative business but lots of human liabilities. And now they are in dire need of the benefits they were promised by Peabody, before they were discarded like chattel.

Roger Elkins of Beckley, W.Va., wrote that he suffers “from cervical fusion in the 5th and 6th vertebrae of my neck, a crushed vertebrae in my lumbar back, a broken ankle, a broken wrist and two operations on this wrist. I suffered from severe burns on my hands from an exploding cable, plus numerous soft tissue injuries from my employment” at Peabody.

In short, he had given his life to Peabody. But Peabody apparently could care less about him or any of the thousands of other retirees, widows and orphans. Wrote one widow, “(I have) heart trouble, a pacemaker. (I had) a stroke, on oxygen daily, arthritic, can hardly walk, three discs out in my back. I am 74 years old … I take daily medications. I cannot live alone … I need this insurance badly.”

Her husband worked 38 years in the Peabody mines, “lost his leg at Dugger Mines in Indiana in 1971, went back to work and retired in 1974. We moved back to Kentucky in 2000.” Now he was gone, and she was pleading with the court for survival.

Here’s Sharron Diane Small, a widow of a miner from Marissa, Ill.:

“I will lose everything if I lose my insurance and medicine. I have colon problems … I have nerve problems. I’m losing my house, and have lost my son, brother, husband, mother-in-law, mother and father, and nephew – one each year for the last eight years.

“I realize it’s not any one person’s fault but what are we suppose to do? I have to take at least 12 different kind of medicine a day. … Please help all of us who are losing. I will wait as long as I can before going to the doctor and try to do without all the medicine I can. Thank you for listening. God bless.”

These are courageous people living out their lives after spending their youth building a great American energy company, and heartless corporate scoundrel. Patriot Coal may go bankrupt, but Peabody expects to walk away scot free.

Fortunately, the United Mine Workers will not walk away from the fight with Peabody, and is pressing not only in bankruptcy court, but also in U.S. district court in West Virginia, where the union has sued Peabody for violating the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act by colluding to deprive its workers and retirees of earned benefits.

“This … promises to be a long battle for the workers, retirees, their dependents and widows at Patriot who seek only fairness,” Roberts said. “Company executives who try to evade their obligations through a slick transfer of corporate assets need to know that the UMWA will fight in every way possible to make sure a promise made is a promise kept.”

As Roberts explained in October when he accepted the National Consumer League’s 2012 Trumpeter Award, fighting for the rights of all workers against the injustice of greedy coal companies is embedded in the UMW DNA, and is at the heart of the labor movement:

“What this movement needs is a little more militancy … a little more militancy,” Roberts repeated as he moved the crowd to stand and shout. The union has taken this fight to the courts, and it is ready to go to the streets. A lot of people who were promised benefits for a life of hard work and sacrifice are depending on it.

We’ll keep on eye on those court cases, and on the fight for survival by miners and their families. And we’ll look at the future of coal and mining communities that have depended on it for not only survival, but prosperity.

King Coal and Paradise

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking
Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away

— John Prine, “Paradise”

Coal was King when I was growing up in western Kentucky. Grandpapa Van was a coal miner who died of lung disease, Parkinson’s and a belly full of hard living. Other friends and relatives have sacrificed their health to go underground to provide for their families.  There was always money in coal, working it or selling the rights. Or hauling it in or hauling it out over the L&N rails. Coal was the story. It fired our lives.

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Me and Papa Van in rural Henderson County, circa 1950.

As a junior reporter at the Henderson Gleaner, I’d spend hours poring over deeds at the Courthouse, jotting down longhand the transfer of mineral rights, mostly. That was the big story. Below that farmland, and stretching all the way back to the Appalachian foothills, lay the newest seams of coal, gold to energy titans like Peabody Coal and Reynolds Metal. Only years later did those rights diminish because of the high-sulfur content of the coal, and the idea of coal gasification replaced the drill. But that too was fool’s gold.

The truth is Mr. Peabody never stopped hauling away coal and wealth from the communities of western Kentucky, southern Indiana and Illinois and, of course, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where many seams already are tapped out.  And while hauling Paradise away, Peabody wasn’t too keen in keeping his word to the communities it lay bare, nor to the miners who dug up the company’s fortune.

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In November 2007, Peabody spun off many of its mature underground mining operations into a company called Patriot Coal Co. Patriot got all of the union-represented miners and their health and retirement liabilities, even though Peabody had signed agreements to continue paying into those funds, along with other members of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association.

Patriot later absorbed the older, unionized mines of Arch Coal Co., further extending its liabilities. As demand and the price of coal declined over the past few years, it probably was little surprise that Patriot got overextended. The company filed for bankruptcy earlier this year, leaving vulnerable the hard-won retirement and health benefits of 10,600 former miners and their families, and the jobs and benefits of 2,000 current miners.

The sheer mendacity and duplicity of Peabody Coal Company in unloading its human assets fired up the United Mine Workers and their President Cecil Roberts, who lambased the company for its double-dealing.

The union on Oct. 23 filed suit on behalf of 12,600 retirees and active workers, charging that Peabody and Arch “planned to transfer (their) employees and benefit plan obligations to Patriot for the purpose of depriving (their) employees and retired employees of their welfare and retiree benefits,” which is illegal under the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA). That case is being heard in Charleston, W.Va.

The union also sought to have the bankruptcy trial moved to West Virginia from New York, where Patriot had set up two dummy corporations to make its case in the shadow of the nation’s financial centers, where it expected to get a better hearing without the consideration of mining families and their communities. On Nov. 27, the bankruptcy court judge ordered that the case be moved to St. Louis, a victory for the miners. As Roberts said in a statement:

“Nobody has ever mined one ounce of coal in Manhattan. Patriot Coal executives … wanted their case heard in a forum far from the coalfields. … St. Louis is where Patriot Coal is headquartered. More important, it’s the headquarters for Peabody Energy and Arch Coal.  These two companies spun off their operations to Patriot in an attempt to run away from pension and health care obligations to thousands of miners and their survivors.”

Stay tuned. This is an important story, and we need to bring it out in the open and shed light on it. Here’s the talented mailman from Maywood, Ill., reflecting on those trips to Muhlenberg County, before Mr. Peabody’s coal train hauled it away: