Adreanna Wills

The golden hue of the sunset shines across the sky and through the window as a woman drives down Van Meter Road in central Kentucky’s Clark County, passing by green rolling hills and hay bales.

In her social media video from early September, Adreanna Wills points out white signs in yards along the way, displaying the phrase “Industrial Solar” with a slash through the words. 

“Imagine these signs being ‘for sale’ signs in front of these properties instead of the signs demonstrating where they stand on this, because that’s probably what we’re looking at for some of these families,” said Wills, who runs the county animal shelter. 

Peabody Energy, Inc., via Wikimedia Commons

A federal bankruptcy judge has denied a petition from former Blackjewel coal executive Jeff Hoops to liquidate the company. The decision means the reorganization of the company will continue under Chapter 11 bankruptcy as former employees, creditors and state agencies seek to recover millions owed by the company.

Hoops cited “permanent negative cash flow” at his former company, which has accrued at least $80 million in administrative and other expenses since its bankruptcy filing on July 1 last year. 

The nearly 3,000-filing-long Blackjewel bankruptcy docket demonstrates an 18-month scramble by the company’s creditors to recuperate as much money as possible from a too-small pot.

Ned Pillersdorf

Allegations of financial misconduct by Blackjewel’s former CEO have surrounded the company’s bankruptcy case since it began last July. But a December 10 court filing lays out specific allegations against ousted CEO Jeff Hoops: webs of shell companies and secret royalty schemes that allegedly enriched Hoops at the expense of coal miners, the environment, and his companies.

The filing, by Blackjewel and related companies, instigates a civil lawsuit against Hoops, a major escalation in a protracted case with wide-ranging implications for the once-mighty coal industry overall.

The bankruptcy sparked a protest by out-of-work miners, who since the beginning blamed Hoops for their misfortune. A graphic often seen at miners’ months-long coal-train blockade featured a feisty Calvin, of the Bill Watterson comic “Calvin and Hobbes,” urinating on their former boss.

Ned Pillersdorf

The convoluted bankruptcy of coal company Blackjewel has hit another turn of events as the company’s former CEO moved to liquidate the company.  A federal judge granted a motion last week to convert the bankruptcy from Chapter 11 to Chapter 7.

That means that instead of exiting bankruptcy as a new company with less debt, Blackjewel L.L.C. will effectively cease to exist.

Former Blackewel CEO Jeff Hoops, who is currently under investigation for mismanagement of the company, said in a filing that Blackjewel had only $146,000 in unrestricted funds, and could not pay millions in back taxes, reclamation fees and employee healthcare expenses.

“Given [Blackjewel’s] lack of operating assets, permanent, negative net cash flow, and continuing financial losses, there is no reason to continue this proceeding as a Chapter 11 and incur the substantial and unnecessary administrative expenses attendant to doing so,” Hoops and other filers said in the November 25 motion.

Office of Sen. Joe Manchin

A group of Ohio Valley senators says a watchdog agency’s recent report shows that federal regulators must do more to protect coal miners from silica dust, an especially toxic form of dust created when mining equipment cuts into rock layers near coal seams.

In a Monday morning press release, six Democratic senators, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, called the findings in last week’s Inspector General’s report “extremely troubling,” saying the Mine Safety and Health Administration knew what it needed to do to lower miners’ exposure to deadly silica dust.

The senators’ pressure comes after the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General found that MSHA’s standards for exposure to deadly silica dust were out of date, and that the mine safety agency’s sampling methods were too infrequent to guarantee that miners were protected.

Adelina Lancianese | NPR

The Mine Safety and Health Administration is not doing enough to protect coal miners from deadly silica dust, according to a new report from the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General. The IG found that MSHA’s standards for exposure to deadly silica dust were out of date, and MSHA lacked the ability to issue fines when coal companies violate air quality standards. The IG also said the mine safety agency’s sampling methods were too infrequent to guarantee that miners were protected. 

The report comes after years of increased scrutiny following reporting from NPR and the Ohio Valley ReSource that found clusters of advanced black lung disease among Appalachian coal miners.


Coal Education Group Pivots to Entrepreneurship

Nov 3, 2020

An eastern Kentucky nonprofit that has long promoted coal to school kids is now promoting innovation and entrepreneurship instead. 

Pikeville-based CEDAR Inc. was founded in 1993 with the purpose of “improving the image of the Coal Industry.” It did this through programs like the annual Coal Fair and a coal education curriculum provided to qualifying teachers in 12 eastern Kentucky counties. Now, students will be encouraged to develop plans for their own businesses, particularly on long-abandoned coal mines. 

“The industry started in 2010 a nosedive and never really corrected, it just kept getting steeper,” said CEDAR president John Justice (no relation to coal baron and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice). “And so we knew that we were going to need to change course, or we were going to become like the dinosaurs: extinct.”

Erica Peterson

Environmental and community advocates in Appalachian coal communities are concerned about a new federal rule, finalized this week, that is changing the process that allows citizens to file complaints about polluting coal mining operations.

The Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said in a Tuesday press release that the changes to the 10-Day Notice policy would “streamline” the complaint process. 

Under federal law and agency regulations, anyone can notify the agency about alleged mining violations. Under the original rule, the agency would share the complaint with state regulators. That kicked off a 10-day clock for the state to take action, either by forcing the company to fix the problem, or showing why action wasn’t necessary.

Glynis Board

The Appalachian Regional Commission is investing another $43.3 million in communities affected by the downturn of the coal industry. The latest POWER grants from the ARC will support 51 projects in coal-dependent communities, including over $15 million for 20 projects in the Ohio Valley. 

The investments are going towards projects that will support broadband expansion, workforce development, entrepreneurship opportunities, and substance abuse recovery in the region’s coal-impacted communities. 


Ned Pillersdorf

Environmental advocates worry a coal company liquidation plan will leave dozens of coal permits in eastern Kentucky unreclaimed, according to filings in the bankruptcy proceedings of Blackjewel L.L.C.

The bankruptcy case has dragged on since last July, when the once-mighty coal company’s Chapter 11 filing left hundreds of Appalachian coal miners suddenly without work, and without weeks of pay. Now the company has until the end of 2020 to exit bankruptcy, and to do that, it needs the court to approve the very liquidation plan that has environmentalists concerned.

Sydney Boles

Robert E. Murray, the former CEO and president of the now-bankrupt Murray Energy, has filed an application with the U.S. Department of Labor for black lung benefits. For years, Murray and his company fought against federal mine safety regulations aimed at reducing the debilitating disease.

“I founded the company and created 8,000 jobs there until the move to end coal use. I am still chairman of the board,” he wrote on a Labor Department form that initiated his claim obtained by the Ohio Valley ReSource. “We’re in bankruptcy, and due to my health could not handle the president and CEO job any longer.”

Murray Energy Exits Bankruptcy, Rehires Union Miners

Sep 16, 2020
Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

Coal mining giant Murray Energy Corp. has emerged from bankruptcy with a new name and a commitment to rehire all of its former union employees, according to a news release from the United Mine Workers of America.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts said on Wednesday that a new collective bargaining agreement has been finalized between the coal miners union and American Consolidated Natural Resources Inc., which took over Murray Energy’s assets.

“There is much to be concerned about for those of us associated with and working in the coal industry during these troubling times, but it is good that this process has finally been completed and our members can put the uncertainty of the bankruptcy behind them,” he said.

Serena Stanley

Charles Wayne Stanley ran underground mining machines for some 20 years, cutting coal from beneath the hills where Virginia meets Kentucky along the Cumberland ridge. He spent another decade as a roof bolter, work that kept the rock above from falling in on his fellow miners.

Stanley was 53 when the Ohio Valley ReSource and NPR’s Howard Berkes first interviewed him in 2016. As he spoke about his long career in coal his pride in the work was clear. 

“It was coal miners that put this nation on the map,” Stanley said with a bit of defiance in his voice. Along with pride there was something else: Maybe a bit of distrust of how the media portrayed people like him; a sense that miners were not respected.


Roger May

Since its launch in 2016 the Ohio Valley ReSource has documented the extraordinary change underway in what has long been a bedrock element of Appalachian economies and culture: the coal industry.

Our coverage shows how the industry’s sharp decline challenges coal-dependent communities that are now left with the legacy costs of mining and the task of reinventing local economies.

We have compiled our years of reporting and interviews in a book, “Appalachian Fall: Dispatches From Coal Country On What’s Ailing America.” In it we share the ground-level stories of those dealing with coal’s collapse and its costs: out-of-work miners blockading a railroad; men and women sickened by an epidemic resurgence of black lung disease; families and communities struggling with polluted water.

Former Blackjewel Miners Could Get More Money From Proposed Settlement

Sep 2, 2020
Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

A proposed $17.3 million settlement of a class action lawsuit would provide additional payment for hundreds of Appalachian coal miners who were suddenly left jobless by the abrupt bankruptcy of the Blackjewel mining company. 

The settlement must be approved by the judge overseeing the complicated Blackjewel bankruptcy case. Although it is not yet final, attorneys for the miners call the agreement a “major victory” in bankruptcy court, a venue that is often not favorable to workers’ claims. 

The combination of protests, legal action, and intervention by the U.S. Department of Labor finally got most of the miners the pay they were owed. The proposed settlement filed Tuesday with the federal bankruptcy court would get each miner an additional payment — the equivalent of 44 days of pay — from the Blackjewel estate for penalties for violating a federal law known as the WARN Act.