It was July 1, 2019, and David Pratt Jr., a fifth-generation coal miner living in Linefork, Kentucky, was in the main office at Blackjewel’s Cloverlick #3 mine, filling out his shift notes at the end of his nine-hour day, which often turned into 10, when a foreman told him Blackjewel had filed for bankruptcy. But, he said, no need to worry. It wasn’t set to impact day-to-day operations. There would just be a momentary restructuring and the men would come back to work days later, the foreman said.
“It turned a complete 180 within an hour,” Pratt recalls.
Just minutes after the initial news, the miners, including Pratt and his father, David Pratt Sr., who had just come in for his shift, were instructed to leave their tools at the mine. They were then asked to leave the property, where they had labored for years, and weren’t permitted to come back until further notice.
That Friday, Blackjewel miners deposited their last paychecks. Then, early the next week, their checks suddenly bounced. Roughly 1,700 workers were now unemployed and bewildered, with many owing their banks hundreds of dollars for bills paid and later overdrawn from their accounts. The company had laid off miners at locations in Wyoming, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia.
A handful of miners in Linefork noticed coal was being loaded into train cars at the nearby processing plant and alerted their colleagues. They’d later learn that the roughly 20,000 tons of coal they had labored for, still sitting on the train tracks, was set to depart at Blackjewel’s command. The coal represented over $1 million in profit for a company that still had not made good on their last paychecks.
Enraged, a small coalition of miners stood on the tracks to prevent the train from leaving. Later, even more miners, including the Pratts, formed an encampment on the train tracks just a few miles from where the coal sat. “It was the point to prove that you can’t shit on the common people and get by with it,” Pratt Sr. says.
The Pratt family, along with a core group of miners, camped there from July to early October, weathering the summer heat, waiting for answers for themselves and their families and, ultimately, payment so they could move on. They raised broad white tents protecting themselves and their families from the elements and organized a makeshift kitchen, outfitted with coolers and basic cookware. Operating in shifts, a few of the men would sleep in small tents at the encampment’s edge.
The miners’ communities, shaken by the news, rallied around them, often bringing donations to the tracks and spearheading crowdfunding initiatives. Their plight struck a chord with national newspapers and broadcast stations seeking to make an example of then-President Donald Trump’s failed promises to the coal industry. Their numbers thinned out in September as bills piled up and safety nets waned. Evenings fell colder and a due date for their owed wages sat wrapped in a confusing bankruptcy process. It was time to get back to work. Some of the miners settled for significantly lower wages at other local employers. Others enrolled in school or training programs. A few eventually found employment with other coal mine operations that remain.
Since David Pratt Jr., 31, first entered the workforce, coal has been on a steep decline unparalleled in the ups and downs witnessed by four generations of Pratt men. Central Appalachia, encompassing eastern Kentucky, has been the hardest hit. More than half of the United States’ coal mines operating in 2008 have since closed, with the majority of those in Appalachia. And 2019 proved pivotal nationwide. Just months after Blackjewel, Murray Energy, the largest private coal company in the U.S., filed for bankruptcy and became the eighth coal company to do so in that year.
Further fueling the instability brought about by coal mine bankruptcies is the fact that coal mining remains one of the highest-paying jobs available in Central Appalachia. The region’s towns and cities were built by the industry. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual mean wage for the coal industry was roughly $63,000 in 2020. And it’s not uncommon for those who work overtime to earn up to $100,000 a year.
The Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was supported by leadership of the United Mine Workers of America earlier this year and recently passed in the Senate. The act intends to provide more funding for mine reclamation and carbon capture projects, prioritizes green energy and infrastructure projects that employ dislocated coal workers, and expands broadband access to both urban and rural communities. But miners, burned by years of fallout from the industry, feel investment in the region is far overdue.