Contura Energy is now slated to purchase three mines in Wyoming and West Virginia from bankrupt coal operator Blackjewel, LLC — although for a higher price than it initially bid — according to the results of a competitive three-day auction filed in federal court Sunday morning.
Some of Blackjewel’s facilities in Virginia also received successful bids, but it remains to be seen how these sales will impact workers.
All of the proposed purchases still require court approval, and a hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday in Charleston, West Virginia.
Following a month of bankruptcy proceedings and unsuccessful efforts to obtain long-term financing, Blackjewel began the auction last Thursday to sell its assets to interested bidders. That process extended into Saturday evening, Blackjewel’s lawyers said in a court filing.
Blackjewel — the country’s sixth largest coal producer in 2017, according to the most recently available federal data — filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 1 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia. At the same time, the company halted operations at its facilities in Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky and West Virginia, and most of the company’s 1,700 employees found themselves out of work.
Bristol, Tennessee-based Contura Energy ended up bidding $33.75 million for the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Pax Surface mine in West Virginia. Contura had previously announced an initial bid of $20.6 million for the trio of sites, which included an immediate $8.1 million deposit that kept Blackjewel afloat.
Contura owned the two Wyoming mines just a few years ago — it sold those mines to Blackjewel in 2017 and still holds permits for Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte. It was in the “final stages” of transferring the permits when Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy, according to a previous news release from Contura. Contura is responsible for $250 million in reclamation obligations at the sites.
A number of companies are also aiming to acquire Blackjewel’s East Coast assets, with bids totaling $59.44 million. This figure does not include “assumption of asset retirement obligations” — related to reclamation costs — that also totaled in the millions.
According to the auction results filing, successful bids on eastern assets included the following:
» Kopper Glo Mining LLC bid on Blackjewel’s Black Mountain and Lone Mountain mines. These are located at the Kentucky/Virginia border, including part of Wise County. Kopper Glo would pay $7.55 million in cash, as well as royalties with a net present value (NPV) of $9.1 million.
» Rhino Energy LLC had the winning bid for Blackjewel’s “Virginia Subdivision Assets.” This includes a bid of $850,000 in cash and royalties with an NPV of $208,000.
» Coking Coal LLC successfully bid on the Pardee Mine in Wise County. This includes $50,000 in cash and royalties with an NPV of $2.41 million.
» Tye Fork Coal Company Inc. successfully bid $400,000 in cash for a mine called “LM6.”
It was not immediately clear from the filing Sunday which facilities were specifically included under the “Virginia Subdivision Assets” and where the “LM6” mine is located. A Blackjewel representative did not respond to a request seeking clarification.
The auction took place at the Cincinnati, Ohio, offices of Squire Patton Boggs, a law firm representing Blackjewel. The auction was closed to journalists and the public, according to eastern Kentucky news station WYMT, which sent a crew to the building where the auction took place.
Blackjewel’s bankruptcy petition listed 10 facilities in Virginia among the company’s “principal assets,” and state officials estimated the company employed almost 500 people in the state. Most of the miners worked in Wise and Buchanan counties, according to data from Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
The auction process comes as hundreds of miners haven’t been paid for work completed prior to the bankruptcy filing, and many are in dire financial situations due to bounced paychecks from the end of June being “clawed back” from bank accounts. As weeks started to pass and miners realized this was not going to be a short layoff, many started filing for unemployment and seeking out new job opportunities.
Tensions reached a breaking point in Harlan County, Kentucky, where laid-off workers blocked a section of railroad tracks to prevent a coal train from leaving one of Blackjewel’s mines. The protest — which drew national media attention with slogans like “No pay, we stay” — started last Monday and remains ongoing.
In its most recent update to employees, posted online last week, Blackjewel stated, “We know how eager you all are to understand what will happen to your mine and whether you will be able return to work. We share this desire and assure you that we are doing everything possible to bring as many employees as possible back to work as quickly as possible.”
But it remains to be seen how many employees will actually be able to return to the company’s mines and when they will be paid.
Employees should be able to access funds in 401(k) accounts after the court allowed Blackjewel to terminate the company’s 401(k) plan. “In accordance with IRS procedures, distribution packets will be sent to participants outlining distribution options, and distributions will be processed as soon as possible,” the company stated in its update.