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Beyond Blackjewel: The impact of the infamous bankruptcy one year later

It has been one year since Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy - the subsequent events of that day altered more than one thousand lives.
Published: Jul. 1, 2020 at 9:31 AM EDT
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CUMBERLAND, Ky. (WYMT) - Little did anyone know that a bankruptcy filing in West Virginia would set off a string of events that would eventually add a chapter to the coal mining history book.

On July 1, 2019, Blackjewel, run by then-CEO Jeff Hoops filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. Blackjewel and its subsidiaries employed more than 1,100 people in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. They also had two large surface mines in Wyoming that employed hundreds. Jeff Hoops would soon resign as part of a $5 million lifeline to help those with Blackjewel navigate the bankruptcy.

Hoops initially filed for bankruptcy, in part, because he said that there was not enough money to cover their worker’s salaries. That would be evident within just a couple of days.

The Initial Impact.

On July 3, the messages began coming in.

On WYMT’s Facebook page, I remember sitting at the computer and seeing one or two messages about how thousands of dollars had suddenly just “vanished” from Blackjewel-affiliated miner’s bank accounts and checks bounced. Many of the miners had already begun to see irregular hours in the wake of the bankruptcy filing, but still worked thinking that it would all blow over. As we would soon find out, those one or two messages were not an isolated incident.

In all, 600 miners in Kentucky alone did not get paid. These were stories of horror to the multitude of miners in this region, including Tony Saylor, who’s money “disappeared” from his account while he was in Lexington getting a brain scan for a mass that had been found.

It was shortly after that when a class-action lawsuit was filed for the miners, due to the fact that there was no WARN notice given before they were laid off. None of the miners for Blackjewel were ever told why their money was taken back out of their bank accounts.

Then-Attorney General Andy Beshear went to Harlan County to meet privately with the miners. He met with miners and collected written statements from many of them to give to investigators.

Multiple Blackjewel miners step onto the railroad tracks in Cumberland to block a train from leaving - the train is carrying more than $1 million in coal they mined.
Multiple Blackjewel miners step onto the railroad tracks in Cumberland to block a train from leaving - the train is carrying more than $1 million in coal they mined.(Connor James)

No Pay, They Stay.

Tension turned action four weeks later.

Cumberland, like much of Harlan County, has been sculpted by the mining industry. In the last fifty years, the population and the industry have been on the decline. As the end of July neared, the quiet town of about 2,200 was about to make national headlines.

Tensions were rising as now former-Blackjewel miners had been left without any notice of termination or any idea when they would see their paychecks. After nearly one full month of not hearing anything from Blackjewel, a train showed up to one of the Cloverlick mines in Cumberland. The train was being loaded with coal - coal the miners had dug up and not been paid for. The miners went on to tell us that about $1 million in coal was loaded onto that train.

A group of several miners showed up at the locked chain-link gate where the train was being loaded with the coal. As the train slowly began to leave, their frustrations boiled over: Down the tracks from where the train was being loaded, a group of miners stood on the tracks, in front of the train, stopping it from leaving.

The events that spiraled from there would end up becoming a nearly two-month protest where the miners set up camp at Sandhill Bottom in Cumberland, along railroad tracks. That two-month protest blocking the coal would become one of the issues in bankruptcy court that was frequently brought up. The miners would end up seeing support from organizations and people from all around, totaling in the millions of dollars, and media outlets from around the globe traveled to record what was going on.

A bus full of Blackjewel miners head to Bankruptcy Court in Charleston, West Virginia to make a statement about their unpaid wages.
A bus full of Blackjewel miners head to Bankruptcy Court in Charleston, West Virginia to make a statement about their unpaid wages.(Connor James)

Local lawmakers pre-filed a bill amid these protests that would prevent what happened with Blackjewel from happening again. Mining companies are supposed to pay a bond when they start mining in Kentucky that would cover their worker’s paychecks, in the case of something like bankruptcy. There was a loophole though that allowed for mining companies that were less than five years old to not pay that. Blackjewel was founded in March of 2017.

As the court cases continued on, the miners at the tracks would call in to listen via phone at the tracks. There, they would play the hearings on a loudspeaker and try to make sense of what was going on. Eventually, in late December, after many miners had found new jobs or went back to school, the protest ended.

A camp set up where many miners gather each day to protest their unpaid wages.
A camp set up where many miners gather each day to protest their unpaid wages.(Connor James)

After The Tracks.

About one month later in October, the miners would end up getting their back pay. To this day, former CEO Jeff Hoops and others are still caught up in court. Attorney’s representing Blackjewel have actually accused Hoops of fraud. It has been alleged that Hoops had transferred tens of millions in the time leading up to the eventual bankruptcy filing. The settlement for the miners still waits to be unsealed.

To this day, the former Blackjewel miners believe what Hoops did is criminal.

“He deeply affected our lives in a major way,” said former Blackjewel miner Jeff Willig. “He destroyed people’s lives by doing what he did.”

Willig spent many days at the protest site and was one of the original miners to stand in front of the train as it was leaving Cumberland. Willig now works a little more than an hour away at Smithfield Foods in Middlesboro, Kentucky. A father of five, Willig has been able to once again find stability one year after Blackjewel left him without a job in the middle of a move.

“I can’t understand why he [Hoops] ain’t in jail,” said Chris Sexton, another one of the original miners to stand in front of the train. Sexton went to look for work at the mines after the protest ended, unable to find a job there, he was able to find work at the Harlan County Detention Center. Since then, Sexton has been laid off there due to COVID and is collecting unemployment.

For Blake Watts, he’s remained in the industry but now is above ground. He says he is now on the road more but has been able to watch his daughter grow up. Watts was also at the tracks during the original protest, and he spent nearly three nights at the tracks getting little to no sleep.

“The family is doing absolutely wonderful my daughter is getting bigger and bigger every day. I can’t really keep up with her it seems,” he laughed. One year later, Watts has also been able to find a new sense of stability post-Blackjewel.

Chris Rowe, who became the appointed “spokesperson” for the miners at the track had left the mining industry and began trucking. He bought an 18-wheeler, but COVID brought that dream to a halt.

“I tried the unemployment deal, it’s, where there’s so many people on it right now it’s unreal. I got on it, they cut it off, now I can’t get it back, don’t know why I can’t even get in touch with them to figure out what’s going on so, I’m gonna put all my effort into getting back in the truck,” he said.

Rowe is optimistic that he will be able to start trucking again. He has not had any luck getting unemployment amid COVID. He did add that he has placed a lot of his faith in God, and has had resounding support from his wife, who stayed with him at the tracks throughout the entirety of the protest.

In all, these four men are mere snapshots of the countless stories that could be told about the former Blackjewel miners. Most of their stories will never be aired or written, and many are still adapting to a new life - both in and out of the mining industry.

Pine Mountain // WYMT's Connor James
Pine Mountain // WYMT's Connor James(WYMT)

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