A Virginia consulting company seeking out-of-work coal miners says it is moving forward with plans to place hundreds of workers in jobs at idled mines in Virginia and Kentucky.
However, a regional employment program in Eastern Kentucky has decided not to refer applicants to the Virginia company out of concern over whether its job claims are legitimate, and a former employee of the company told the Lexington Herald-Leader he quit over similar questions.
Eddie J. Estep, president of Professional Contracting in Norton, Va., said in a telephone interview Thursday he had already placed about 50 miners in jobs.
Estep created a flurry of excitement in the coalfields of southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia with media reports saying his company was taking applications to fill several hundred mining jobs.
A downturn in coal production has hit the area hard. At least 2,000 miners have been laid off in Eastern Kentucky alone in the last year.
Estep said his company has taken about 3,000 applications over the past month. His company is working with a group of investors who will control the mines, he said, though he declined to name the investors or give specifics about the locations of the mines. He said the investors own mines that are idled.
Estep said he hopes to fill about 800 jobs at mines in Kentucky and Virginia.
"It can be a little less, but it can be a lot more, too, depending on what the investors want to put into it," he said. "There's a lot of mines shut down. Reopening mines is the quicker way to put people to work, but it takes time through federal laws and state laws to do it."
The Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, which is working with several hundred laid-off miners to help them find jobs or training for new careers, decided last week not to refer miners to Professional Contracting, said its spokesman, Michael Cornett.
The reason, Cornett said, is that EKCEP officials began to "seriously question the legitimacy of these job opportunities" because of things they had heard from people who had applied with Professional Contracting.
Officials with the jobs program tried numerous times to reach Professional Contracting but were not successful, Cornett said.
Cornett said EKCEP also will not reimburse people for any money they pay Professional Contracting for retraining classes. EKCEP, based in Hazard, was awarded a $5.2 million federal grant last week to help laid-off miners and their families.
There was speculation that the jobs for which Professional Contracting was seeking applicants were at Alpha Natural Resources mines. Alpha has closed a number of mines in Eastern Kentucky and elsewhere in recent months.
However, a spokeswoman for Alpha, Samantha Davison, told the Herald-Leader on Thursday that the company is not in discussions with Estep to have him reopen any of its idled mines. If Alpha were able to reopen mines, it would do the work itself, not have someone else do it, Davison said.
Estep, who said he helps companies find labor and also trains miners, said in interviews with the Herald-Leader and Associated Press in recent days that rumors the jobs don't exist were untrue.
"I'm not playing games with this. If they want to stop the rumors, call me," he said.
Estep acknowledged one of the investors, Daniel Bunn, had recently pulled out. Bunn owns two mines in Pike and Knott counties in Kentucky.
There are about 100 jobs at each mine looking to hire workers, and Estep told the Associated Press he didn't expect there to be any permitting issues with the mines.
"Eight hundred people is not an overnight adventure," Estep said. "It takes time to process applications."
If an operator wished to resume mining at an idled mine in Kentucky, he would have to notify the state Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement's regional office, according to Dick Brown, a spokesman for the state Energy and Environment Cabinet. Brown said if a transfer of mine ownership were involved, the state's Division of Mine Permits would have to approve applications, but that likely wouldn't happen until a purchase is finalized.
Estep had told the Herald-Leader a week ago that Bunn's mines were ready for workers to begin reopening them.
Otto Smith, a laid-off miner from Harlan County, said he applied at Professional Contracting in early February and worked for awhile in the office, taking applications and teaching training classes attended by other miners. The miners paid the company for the classes, Smith said.
But Smith said he knew of no miners getting jobs through the company. He began to question whether the jobs that so many miners were hoping for actually existed.
He left in late February and has advised people not to apply with the Virginia company, he said.
"All this stuff ain't adding up," Smith said.
Estep told the Herald-Leader on March 2 that Professional Contracting had cut off the application period in order to review the thousands of applications already on file and would begin calling people in for drug testing soon.
But Mark Spicer, an out-of-work miner who lost his job at a Martin County surface mine in January 2012, said he drove from Perry County into the Professional Contracting offices on Monday, the 4th, to apply for a job.
Spicer said the building was full of applicants, and he filled out paperwork, had his picture taken and was told to wait about two weeks.
"They told us when they would start viewing them, then they'd call us for interviews," Spicer said. He said he wasn't told what coal companies were interested in hiring.
Estep said he has worked with about 50 mining companies and has been in the coal mining industry for 35 years. He is a certified instructor.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1