Kentucky

‘Miners must be paid.’ Feds seek to bar shipment of coal from bankrupt Blackjewel.

These Kentucky miners blocked a train. They said they’re here to stay.

Out-of-work Blackjewel miners blocked a train hauling coal July 30 in Harlan County and continued their protest into July 31.
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Out-of-work Blackjewel miners blocked a train hauling coal July 30 in Harlan County and continued their protest into July 31.

Federal officials have asked a judge to block the shipment of a train load of coal in Harlan County until employees of bankrupt Blackjewel LLC get paid for mining it.

The U.S. Department of Labor filed the motion Monday.

The final paycheck that Blackjewel issued to employees in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia on June 28 bounced after the company shut down July 1, costing 1,100 people their jobs.

Miners say the company owes them for the two-week check period covered on the June 28 check and six days they worked in the next pay period before the shutdown.

The case was winding its way through bankruptcy court with no indication when, or if, the employees would get reimbursed for the cold checks when they took matters into their hands on July 29, blocking train tracks at Cumberland to prevent coal from Blackjewel mines from moving out.

The miners were mad the company had gotten paid for the coal they worked to produce, but they hadn’t gotten paid.

The miners allowed CSX Transportation to move its engines, but have continued to block the tracks to prevent the cars of coal from being moved.

The federal Labor Department had opened an investigation of Blackjewel on July 15, but assigned two investigators to go to Harlan County and interview miners after a director saw news reports about the protest, an administrator, Christopher Binda, said in an affidavit.

Binda said officials with the state Labor Cabinet also had contacted him about the Blackjewel case.

The federal agency alleged in its motion that Blackjewel did not pay miners the federally-mandated minimum wage for the time they worked in June to mine the coal, violating federal law. The company also didn’t pay miners for overtime they worked in June, also a violation, the agency alleged.

Some of the coal the miners produced without being paid is in the 100 rail cars sitting near Cumberland, according to the motion.

That means the coal is considered “hot goods,” under federal law, according to the motion.

Under that provision, it’s illegal to ship or sell goods in interstate commerce that were produced in violation of federal minimum-wage and overtime rules.

The Labor Department said it understood the coal has been bought by Blackjewel Marketing and Sales Holdings.

That company is a partnership of Blackjewel, Javelin Global Commodities and Uniper SE, former Blackjewel chief Jeff Hoops Sr. said in an earlier affidavit.

The partnership marketed the coal Blackjewel produced.

The marketing company has paid Blackjewel 75 percent of the price of the coal, and the company has already spent the money, an attorney for the coal company said in a court hearing Monday after the federal motion was filed.

The miners “must be paid for the work they have performed in producing and processing the coal before the coal can be shipped and entered into interstate commerce,” the Labor Department argued.

The department asked Judge Frank Volk to bar the shipment or transfer of the coal until the miners are paid.

The motion also asked Volk to order that any money from the sale of the coal be held in escrow until a resolution of the issue of pay for the miners.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from Somerset who represents Harlan County, applauded the effort by the Department of Labor.

“I am eager for some peace of mind for our miners and their families, and it is reassuring that DOL attorneys agree that the coal they mined should not be sold until the coal miners are paid,” Rogers said.

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Out-of-work Blackjewel miners play a game of corn hole on the railroad tracks near Cumberland on Tuesday after blocking a train Monday afternoon. Will Wright

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.
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