Bankrupt coal-producer Cambrian Coal, LLC, fired all of its employees from the company’s Premier Elkhorn subsidiary last week without notice as part of the sale of Premier Elkhorn to a West Virginia company.
According to letters distributed to Premier Elkhorn employees, Cambrian “and certain of its subsidiaries” sold all of the company’s Premier Elkhorn assets to Pristine Clean Energy, LLC, on Sept. 27. As a result of that sale, the letters said, all of Cambrian’s Premier Elkhorn employees were to be terminated.
“Although Cambrian entered into an agreement with Pristine to continue employment, employment-related services and benefits for the employees associated with Premier Elkhorn operations during a transition period, Pristine terminated that agreement effective September 20, 2019,” the letter said.
The terminations, the letters said, took effect Friday. Pristine Clean Energy, one of the letters said, “will rehire employees as needed.” No explanation was given in the letters, one of which was signed by J. Mark Campbell, for the terminations.
Repeated calls and emails to Cambrian, Pristine and the companies’ legal representations went unanswered.
William Hopkins, a former section foreman at Premier Elkhorn’s Daniels Creek deep mine near Millard, was one of the employees who lost his job on Friday. He said “at least 200” fellow Premier Elkhorn employees were affected by the mass terminations. Hopkins, a resident of Greasy Creek who worked with nine miners under him on his section, said he and his fellow miners had anticipated losing their jobs.
“We knew that something was wrong,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said when Cambrian filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July, company officials held a meeting with all their employees at East Ridge High School and informed them of the filing. The employees were furloughed for about a week, but were called back to work about a week later, he said. Over the following two months, Hopkins said, several potential buyers toured Premier Elkhorn properties, but the company’s miners were “never really told … what would happen if some other company bought the mine.”
Hopkins said the Monday before his termination, his crew was ordered to perform their weekly equipment checks five days early and were summoned to a meeting at Myra.
“For us to go ahead and do our weeklys, we knew it was a bad sign,” he said.
Hopkins said company officials informed the miners that Pristine Clean Energy had purchased Premier Elkhorn and that there would be another furlough period while Pristine attempted to get insurance coverage in order to continue operations at the former Premier Elkhorn mines. On Friday, Oct. 4, Hopkins and his wife traveled to Myra to the Premier Elkhorn offices to attempt to pick up his paycheck, he said, and the couple were forced to wait for five hours before they were given the check around 5 p.m. Friday. Some miners, he said, waited even longer.
It was at that time, he said, that he and the other miners were given the letters informing them of their termination. Hopkins and, he says, hundreds of other miners were now unemployed.
“At the drop of the hat, you don’t have a job,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said he has had little communication with his fellow miners following the terminations. He said anyone he has spoken with share the same concerns.
“Everybody is worried about a job because we need one and there aren’t any,” he said.
Hopkins said his concern now is for his family. Hopkins and his wife, Misty, have done their best to shield their three children, two teens and a 9-year-old, from the gravity of the situation they now face.
“We don’t really tell them what all is going on,” he said. “It’s really tough on me and Misty.”
Hopkins said he’s looking for work locally, but he is also considering looking out of state.
“I hate the thought of possibly having to leave this place,” he said.
In Cambrian’s bankruptcy filing, the company listed assets of between $10 million and $50 million and liabilities of between $100 million and half a billion dollars. Cambrian Holding Company is a blanket under which several mining operations operated. Those operations included Apex Energy, Perry County Coal in Hazard, Premier Elkhorn and Clintwood Elkhorn Mining LLC, which has operations at Feds Creek and in Hurley, Virginia.
It is unclear how last week’s actions affected those other operations.
Hopkins said he hopes to be able to find other work locally. He added that he also hopes companies will eventually consider their employees in situations such as the one resulting in the termination of Premier Elkhorn’s miners.
“I just wish these companies would realize what they’re doing to people,” Hopkins said. “It’s just a couple of months before Christmas … I wish the people behind the desks would realize what they’re doing to people and families.”
Chris Anderson of Burdine is a reporter for the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, where this report first appeared. Anderson also works as a parttime photographer for The Mountain Eagle.