Alpha Natural Resources is not “in any discussions or negotiations” to reopen any of its closed mines in eastern Kentucky or southwest Virginia, a company spokesman says.
Recent television and newspaper reports — along with comments by some public officials — have fueled speculation that Bristol, Va.-based Alpha has been working with two outside companies to reopen at least five underground mines and two preparation plants in Harlan County, Ky., and in Dickenson County, Va. The operations are currently idled because of poor market conditions for coal used in power generation.
The first report aired February 22 in the Tri-Cities area of Tennessee and Virginia and said that coal investor Daniel W. Bunn has partnered with Professional Contracting LLC of Norton, Va., and its owner Eddie Joe Estep to hire at least 800 miners needed to get the idled mines and prep plants opened.
Later reports identified Alpha as the company negotiating with Bunn and Estep and indicated that as many as 4,000 jobs might be created.
Alpha is not involved in any such project, said company spokesman Ted Pile.
“This rumor has been quite active in recent days,” said Pile, Vice- President for Corporate Communications at Alpha’s Bristol office. “I can tell you for the record that we are not in any discussions or negotiations with Mr. Estep of Professional Contracting or Mr. Bunn to open any mines. I think it would be a great service to your readers to report this fact.”
Professional Contracting shares a storefront office in downtown Norton with its sister company Professional Driver Improvement LLC. The two firms, both of which list Estep as “consultant,” advertise their services as “driver improvement, OSHA, MSHA, OSHA violations, MSHA violations, and EPA violations.” A posting on the Facebook social media site says Professional Contracting is engaged in the retraining of surface and underground miners and offers refresher courses in advanced first aid.
Rumors that Professional Contracting would be in charge of hiring a large number of miners apparently began February 12 after Phillips posted on Facebook that Professional Contracting was “taking applications for employment at 8 mines and 2 prep plants.”
In a February 22 interview with WCYB-TV, also located in Bristol, Va., Phillips said he had already received 2,500 applications with more arriving hourly. Phillips also identified Daniel Bunn as a member of the family that manufactures coffee makers and said Bunn would give priority to hiring laid-off miners to fill the 800 jobs.
“[Bunn] talked to me, and he said ‘sell my coal. Help these miners. Help these communities,’” Estep told WCYB.
On February 24, other television stations, including at least two in Kentucky, began airing reports on the rumored mine openings and the need for at least 800 workers. Those reports, portions of which were picked up by The Associated Press and distributed across the U.S., indicated the mines in question were owned by Alpha and located in Harlan County — one at Coalgood and the others in the Cumberland area.
“The rumor has proved to be fact,” said one television field reporter.
On February 27, Harlan County Judge/Executive Joe Grieshop told the Harlan Daily Enterprise he drove to Norton to meet with Estep. He apparently left the meeting also believing the idled mines are owned by Alpha.
“I was over there last week to see what we could do to help them,” Grieshop told the paper. “Jim Roddy [a Harlan County magistrate] and I went over there to see what we could do as county government to help. The good news is it appears it’s the Alpha mines that are currently vacated here in Harlan County and some mines over in Virginia. Two mines over here.”
Grieshop added that Alpha has “been keeping [the mines] in good shape with a skeleton crew.”
Neither Grieshop, Bunn nor Estep could be reached for comment. Grieshop did not return a telephone message left at his office. Bunn did not reply to an e-mail message seeking confirmation on his involvement with Professional Contracting. Estep did not answer repeated calls and a message could not be left because the voice mail on his cellular phone was full.
Bunn operates NVZ Capital LLC, listed as a Nevada limited liability company that invests in coal mining venture. Bunn also owns and operates KYZ Red Oak Resources LLC, which has operated a deep mine in the Sassafras area of Knott County.
On February 11, U.S. District Court Judge Karen Caldwell dismissed a lawsuit filed KYZ Red Oak filed against four persons, including the owner of a Letcher County trucking company. Red Oak charged the four with conspiring to steal 75 truckloads of coal and with failing to give Bunn 50 percent of a mining venture in which he invested $250,000.
Caldwell ruled the lawsuit as filed failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. She gave attorney for KYZ Red Oak 14 days from February 11 to re-file the suit and list the four as individual defendants instead of a group.