Out of work for a month, nearly 600 Blackjewel LLC coal miners in Wyoming are waiting for news about whether they’ll soon be called back to work.
An auction hearing for Blackjewel’s 32 coal mines and other operations in Wyoming and three Appalachia states continues Thursday as of press time. Already approved as a stalking horse bidder for the company’s flagship Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Campbell County, along with the Pax Surface Mine in West Virginia, Contura Energy Corp. may be close to its second stint running the Powder River Basin operations.
Countura bought Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr in 2015 from Alpha Natural Resources during Alpha’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Contura sold them to Blackjewel in December 2017 in a no-cash deal that had Blackjewel take on debt associated with the mines. Contura still owns the state mining permits and is responsible for about $250 million worth of reclamation.
Since filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy then shutting down its mines and locking out about 1,700 employees, Blackjewel has been unable to find financing to reopen the mines and continue business as usual while going through a reorganization. It’s since shifted focus to selling off whatever assets it can and converting the rest to a Chapter 7 liquidation.
A month locked out from their jobs has taken a toll on Blackjewel coal miners, said Melissa Peterson-Worden, who worked at the warehouse facility that served the company’s Wyoming mines. Many have already found other jobs while others are holding out hope they can last until the mines call them back.
“I’m still here waiting,” she said, adding that she has passion for her job and wants to get back to work producing Powder River Basin coal. “I’m definitely on board for that. ... I absolutely plan on going back.”
She said the interim has been difficult financially and emotionally. Her husband works mining coal for Cloud Peak Energy, which also is going through a bankruptcy and asset sale.
“Is it tight right now? Unbelievably so,” she said. “My husband works at Cloud Peak Energy, so we’re looking at two bankruptcies right now. The pressure is so overwhelming that at times I cannot even emotionally react to it. I can’t cry about it, I can’t be angry about it. It’s just survival mode right now.”
Christopher Pilsher is one of many Blackjewel workers who won’t go back when called. He’s already secured another job on a large potato farm in North Dakota. With a young family, he said he just couldn’t wait out the shutdown.
“I went to a different type of mining,” he said. “I went to farming potatoes.”
If he hadn’t found another job, Pilsher said he still isn’t sure he would have returned to coal mining, which he did for about a decade.
“With the way everything is going (in the industry), I’m kind of half and half on it,” he said. “Part of me wouldn’t want to go back because it’s so unstable. The other part of me would.”
Because Contura is already responsible for reclamation at the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines, it’s probably the best for it to have ownership again, said Shannon Anderson, an attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a Sheridan-based advocacy group.
She still has concerns about Contura running the mines again, particularly for how long.
“We’ve always maintained that Contura is on the hook for reclamation and they’re still the permit holder on the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines, so it’s good to reinstate them in that position. We are concerned how long they’re going to stick around.”