Whitesburg KY

Blackjewel miners were sucker-punched

Scott Cox got sucker-punched.

First, by President Donald Trump, who promised to bring the coal industry back to its former splendor, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. Then by Cox’s employer, the Blackjewel coal company, which lured him to a high-paying job in the mines then abruptly went bankrupt and clawed back three weeks of wages, leaving Cox and 1,000 others with bounced checks and unpaid bills. Then by the state of Kentucky, which was supposed to make sure that Blackjewel posted a bond that would cover miners’ wages in just such an emergency.

Now, as coal miners stand firm on the CSX tracks in Cumberland, blocking the Blackjewel coal train until they get paid, we may be seeing both the symbolic and literal end of an industry that, with the help of politicians, has so often left devastated land and people behind in Appalachia. The miners’ last stand is just a few miles and 45 years from the last big mining strike in Bloody Harlan when the United Mine Workers fight with the Eastover mining company came to an end. One has to wonder how the Blackjewel situation would have unfolded if their mines were unionized; there are currently no UMW mines left in Kentucky.

Cox told Herald-Leader reporters Will Wright and Bill Estep that he thought he’d have a mining job through at least Trump’s second administration so he could build up enough savings to get a college degree. Instead, he’s now applied for unemployment and food stamps (a program the Trump administration is trying reduce).

The miners’ checks should have been covered by a bond that’s required by the state for all new construction and mining companies. Blackjewel should have posted enough money to cover four weeks of pay for employees. It hadn’t posted one in two years of existence. Apparently, as Labor Cabinet Secretary David Dickerson announced the Labor Cabinet can’t keep track because the Secretary of State’s office does not automatically notify them about newly incorporated businesses require to post a bond.

That’s a pretty big miss, especially when mining companies have to file for numerous state permits and licenses to begin work. Dickerson described it as a “selfpolicing” requirement. Are there more companies who wouldn’t be able to pay their workers if they went out of business? Dickerson didn’t say and Labor officials didn’t return calls on Thursday.

But it wouldn’t be surprising. There’s always been a double standard for regulating coal companies in this state. Look at the recent example of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, whose companies owed millions of dollars in unpaid property taxes. Under a deal reached by Kentucky state officials, the companies were allowed to pay only the balance, minus the late fees and penalties. Company officials said the industry downturn had left them unable to pay.

Coal jobs in Kentucky have dropped 60 percent since 2011, and while plenty of people, elected and otherwise, have talked about the need to figure out Eastern Kentucky’s next economic future, coal’s fading promise has kept beckoning, and the talk seems to come to nothing.

On August 1, a steady stream of mostly Democratic politicians, including Attorney General and U.S. Senate candidates Greg Stumbo and Amy McGrath, came to Cumberland to commiserate with the miners and get some photos for their upcoming campaigns. The day before, Gov. Matt Bevin posted a video asking people to donate to two non-profits, With Love From Harlan and and the Harlan County Community Action Agency.

That’s very nice. It would also be nice if the state’s elected officials would investigate how this happened, close the loopholes that allowed Blackjewel to avoid posting a bond, and figure out some ways to get good-paying jobs to eastern Kentucky to replace coal mining’s wreckage.

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