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.
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.
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: