As the details of coal producer Blackjewel LLC’s bankruptcy continue to be sorted out in federal court, a foundation announced a $250,000 donation to help those in Wise and Lee counties affected by the closing.
The Richard and Leslie Gilliam Foundation presented the amount to the Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board at a ceremony in Norton on Monday.
This week, the board will start the process of mailing a $2,000 check to each Blackjewel employee who worked at one of the company’s sites in Lee and Wise and attended one of the board’s “rapid response” resource sessions in Norton and St. Charles or the job fair in Appalachia in July, according to a written description of the process provided to the Bristol Herald Courier Tuesday.
Employees who worked at a site in Lee or Wise and did not attend one of these events — which meant they were not entered into a database of known Blackjewel employees — can still receive assistance by contacting a workforce development specialist.
The Southwest workforce board “has graciously agreed to do the work of contacting these miners and getting the resources into their hands to smooth out this bad set of circumstances that has befallen them,” Ross Kegan, a Gilliam Foundation representative, said in a news release about the donation.
The foundation supports initiatives aimed at strengthening communities and improving quality of life in Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.
Blackjewel — the sixth largest coal producer in the U.S. 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.
The company owes hundreds of employees back pay for work completed prior to the bankruptcy filing. Miners in Virginia reported that their paychecks from June 28 bounced and were “clawed back” from bank accounts, leaving many with negative balances and dire financial situations.
State officials estimate that Blackjewel employed almost 500 Virginians in 2018. Most of the miners worked in Wise and Buchanan counties, according to data from Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
As workers started to feel the impacts of the bankruptcy last month, the Southwest Virginia Workforce Development Board convened local and state agencies for a number of resource sessions across the region. These events covered job training and search assistance, unemployment insurance and applying for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program and Medicaid, among other topics.
Following a month of bankruptcy proceedings and unsuccessful efforts to obtain long-term financing, Blackjewel held a court-approved auction last week to sell its assets to interested bidders.
Blackjewel accepted a $33.75 million bid from Bristol, Tennessee-based Contura Energy for the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and the Pax Surface mine in West Virginia. Other companies bid on several of Blackjewel’s Appalachian region facilities, including in Virginia. These proposed sales, however, are still being finalized in federal bankruptcy court this week.
It remains unclear when former Blackjewel employees can expect to be paid and which mines in Virginia may ultimately reopen, although it may be under new ownership.