News and Commentary

Protest Enters 8th Week As Kentucky Coal Miners Continue Blockade Demanding Earned Wages
Blackjewel coal miner protest
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Out-of-work miners blocking a load of coal from leaving a remote part of southeastern Kentucky have been told by their lawyers that the matter won’t be resolved until October at the earliest, as a federal bankruptcy court wants negotiators to reach an agreement without judicial intervention.

Demonstrators have occupied a set of railroad tracks in Harlan County since July 29 after Blackjewel LLC issued bad checks to hundreds of coal workers in the area before abruptly declaring bankruptcy. Some miners are owed more than three weeks in back pay and have vowed to continue with the blockade until they are paid what they earned. The parked coal, which was initially reported to be worth about $1 million, was sold before the company filed for bankruptcy, according to Blackjewel lawyers.

“If we didn’t go to the bargaining table this would drag on, and that’s intolerable,” said Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney representing several former Blackjewel coal miners. “We’ve got to get this resolved sooner rather than later. The miners are running out of money.”

Pillersdorf said he met with about fifty miners and their families at the protest site over the weekend. He told them his legal team had “shifted gears into a negotiation strategy” with Blackjewel because “Murphy’s law has kicked in,” claiming “an intense battle” between the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) and Blackjewel had brought the bankruptcy proceedings “to a virtual halt.”

On August 5, the first day of Blackjewel’s bankruptcy hearing, Acting Labor Secretary Patrick Pizzella filed an emergency motion with the court requesting the blockaded shipment stay put. The DOL argued the coal is considered “hot goods” and must be “cooled” — meaning those who mined it are paid their owed wages before the product can be transported in interstate commerce, per federal law. The agency asked former Blackjewel miners to testify at an evidentiary hearing earlier this month. Blackjewel lawyers claimed there is no way of knowing whether the coal in question was mined by the individuals who testified. They said the load, which fills an estimated 75 train cars, should be transferred to its buyer soon before losing more value from oxidation. West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports that the bankruptcy judge recently set a timeline to resolve the “hot goods” dispute, giving the DOL and Blackjewel until September 23 to submit a series of briefs to the court, with a final set due on October 1.

According to Pillersdorf, the lengthy process has “effectively prevented” re-start operations at former Blackjewel mines in Harlan County that could present job opportunities for laid-off miners.

In an interview with ABC News’ affiliate in Lexington, former Blackjewel coal worker Chris Rowe said, “You’ll have setbacks in anything that you do.”

“The way that we try to look at it, a few little setbacks will make us try that much harder. You can’t give up, don’t lay down and we’re not going to,” he continued.

If the miners and Blackjewel cannot reach an agreement by October 1 through “good faith negotiations,” there will be mediation with a federal magistrate, according to a court order filed last Wednesday.

Pillersdorf said he has also filed an adversary class action lawsuit on behalf of the miners against former Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops, his son, Blackjewel, and the Lexington Coal Company, LLC.

“We are certainly going to pursue this claim in that we made it clear in our pleadings that we believe the bankruptcy filing is simply a Jeff Hoops scheme to shed debt,” Pillersdorf said last week.

According to the New Yorker, “Hoops is currently building a resort in his home state of West Virginia, called the Grand Patrician, named after his wife, Patricia.”

Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @JeffreyCawood.