Disabled miner shares concerns over Patriot Coal Corp. bankruptcy
September 14, 2012 ·
Patriot Coal’s recent bankruptcy filing could affect thousands of retired coal miners from West Virginia and other states. Many of those miners are members of the United Mine Workers of America.
Patriot Coal Corporation filed for chapter 11 in July. U.S. bankruptcy Judge Shelly Chapman in New York is trying to determine where the case should take place. Chapman heard from attorneys representing Patriot who want to keep the case in New York because according to the filing the company's financial and professional advisers are in New York.
Chapman also heard from attorneys representing the trustees and the United Mine Workers of America. The coal company is the second largest employer of UMWA miners in the U.S.
“One day more one day more,” a woman sings during a rally in Charleston. “If the company holds out 20 years we’ll hold out one day more.”
The union rallied and marched in Charleston this week hoping their voices would ring clear in New York; they want the case heard in Charleston.
“We want this case heard hear in the coalfields not in New York but here in the coalfields where we work and live,” union member Joe Carter said during the rally. “We deserve to have the right to participate in those proceedings because it’s going to affect thousands of our members.”
Most of the combined 20,000 retirees and dependents of Patriot are in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio.
While hundreds of union miners showed up to the rally in Charleston one miner stayed in his home in Mercer County.
“I’d love to be there right with them brothers because everybody needs to show up,” disabled miner Robert Blankenship said.
Robert Blankenship is originally from Bluefield. He worked at Herndon in Wyoming County at Keystone number 2 and 3 owned by Eastern Associated Coal Corporation, now owned by Patriot Coal.
He says he trained for 3 days in November in 1970 to be a roof bolter until his trainer was injured.
“The guy was training me on how to run the pin machine," he said, "and he run a piece of steel right into his hand laid his hand wide open and I had to take his place.”
He worked there for more than 10 years, until HE was injured in 1981.
“It was on October the 22 at 7:15,” he said. “My helper we had a double head … I was running a double head and this boss we had he wasn’t a section boss he was a supply boss."
"He worked third shift but they brought him in because our regular boss was going to be off and heck I was getting ready to go eat dinner I done sent my helper to dinner at 7:15 and the next thing I know there was a buggy hit me bumper to bumper pin machine against the shuttle car."
"And spin me around cut left leg off had one tendon holding it on and the other leg it just blowed it plum up because I had to put pins in my ankle and rebuild my ankle and everything else my knee was shot this leg was in a cast for 3.5 years and this one was gone that night.”
His crushed leg was amputated that night.
“They saved my right leg there wasn’t nothing they could do for the left except put me on an artificial limb, which I got it three years later," he said, "and I’ve had one ever since then."
He said he was bitter for a long time after the accident.
“It was so hard for me to accept it that I took it out on everybody,” he said.
“The first three years of my life I was in a wheelchair in a reclining chair I couldn’t get up and go and I was really bottled up a lot of anger I was mad at the world."
"It was everybody’s fault because I didn’t have nothing to do with anything I was just doing my job at work and I blamed everybody for it for a long time I finally learned how to live with it."
Blankenship says even after losing his leg it took years before he was granted his benefits.
“They didn’t settle with me until 1995," he said. "I was already hurt for over 14 years before they ever settled with me before they ever gave me a penny."
“Besides temporary compensation I got temporary benefits every two weeks if you got a check or if you different get a check it was all up to what the lawyers done or what this one done or what that one done. And then they sell me to another coal company which is Patriot Coal and now they just hey now we’re going to close business so now where am I going to go to.”
The union believes that Patriot was a company created to fail. In a letter to union members, the UMWA points out that Patriot’s predecessors, Peabody and Arch Coal Company, spun off their UMWA operations into separate companies.
In the bankruptcy file, Patriot refers to pension and non-pension benefits for active and retired miners whose employers are no longer in business as ‘costly.’
Blankenship is one of those miners. He was promised benefits for life but like thousands of other miners, he could lose his worker’s compensation, pension and medical benefits.
“Financially I’ll be ruined," he said, "I’ll literally will be ruined I’ll lose my home I can’t afford to pay my vehicle insurance and stuff. They’ll be a lot of things change in my life.”
“Who is going to hire me,” Blankenship said. "Who is going to hire a 60-year-old one legged man with no legs I mean. I’m a double amputee."
"I can’t go to work in the coal mines no more I sure ain’t going to go work in a taxi cab for no minimum wage.”
Patriot gave no comment on the case. Attorneys from both sides must file briefs by October 5. At that time Judge Chapman is expected to make a decision on the venue.