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Kentucky Miners Block Railroad In Demand For Pay After Blackjewel Coal Bankruptcy

Jul 31, 2019
Originally published on July 31, 2019 11:49 am
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In Kentucky, a group of coal miners is blocking a coal train. They've camped out on the tracks. Images show them standing on the tracks, even playing corn hole on the tracks in front of a coal train. And the miners say they will not leave until their bankrupt employer, Blackjewel, pays them. Here's WMMT's Sydney Boles.

SYDNEY BOLES, BYLINE: Harlan County, Ky., though small and rural, has a long history of labor activism.

(SOUNDBITE OF HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

BOLES: In this latest protest, drivers honk to support coal miners who, since Monday, have staged a sit-in of sorts. As many as 20 miners have blocked a railroad in Cumberland, KY. They've been sitting in chairs or parking trucks across the tracks. They've kept a train full of coal from leaving a plant. The miners' now bankrupt employer, Blackjewel coal, hasn't paid them for almost a month. Blackjewel is the nation's sixth-largest coal company, and its bankruptcy has rippled through local communities and more than 1,000 Appalachian miners and their families. Miners like Shane Smith say they won't get off the tracks until they're paid.

SHANE SMITH: If they can load a train out, they can give us our money.

BOLES: Smith drove 150 miles roundtrip to work at a local mine. The father of six says he scraped together enough change to travel to the protest. Miner Bobby Sexton says his bank account is short thousands from the loss of work.

BOBBY SEXTON: My family's hungry, man. And I'm going to do whatever it takes to feed them. I don't know if I'll go home if they don't pay us. I'll sit here till whenever.

BOLES: Despite efforts by the Trump administration to support coal production, some coal producers continue to struggle. Mining company Blackhawk also declared bankruptcy this month, and more coal-fired power plants are shutting their doors or converting to natural gas. Blackjewel did not respond to specific questions about the protest, but the person who was CEO until a month ago, Jeff Hoops, says he's frustrated.

JEFF HOOPS: I'm really, really sorry that it's reached this point.

BOLES: An employee update from Blackjewel this week said it's working with the bankruptcy court to allow employees to tap retirement savings in 401(k)'s to access money immediately. As for the current blockade of the coal train, it's unclear who owns the coal and whether letting it through would help these miners eventually get the money they're owed. For now, they have no plans to leave the tracks. For NPR News, I'm Sydney Boles in Cumberland, Ky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.