"We remain focused on using the reorganization process to ensure the company's future viability as a competitor and employer in a challenging market environment," Freitag said. "We anticipate that the new court will become familiar with our case very quickly, and we remain committed to completing the reorganization as soon as possible and preserving the nearly 4,000 jobs at risk."
Two weeks ago, Patriot announced it was phasing out the use of mountaintop removal and other large-scale strip mining as part of a move to focus on using underground mining methods to produce high-priced steel-making coal and stay profitable as the U.S. market shrinks for coal burned to produce electricity.
In their fight with Patriot, UMW officials say the firm was essentially a "company created to fail," to give Peabody Energy and Arch Coal a way to shed obligations to fund union pensions and health-care benefits in the nation's eastern coalfields, while profiting from their giant, nonunion surface mines out west.
Five years ago, Peabody formed Patriot as a spin-off company where Peabody tucked union mines in West Virginia and the Midwest, along with pension and health-care obligations for union retirees. Patriot later bought another company, Magnum Coal, which had been similarly spin-off by Arch Coal when it got rid of most of its Appalachian operations and their related pension and health-care liabilities.
Patriot employs about 2,000 active union members in West Virginia and Kentucky, and the company is currently responsible for more than 10,000 retirees and another 10,000 dependents, most of them in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio.
In her decision to move the case to St. Louis, the judge noted handwritten letters the court received from miners and their families worried about pensions and health-care benefits.
"Many of the enclosed family pictures, or lists of ailments and medications," the ruling said. "Some of them asked for a personal response. All of them were respectful, and compelling.
"This decision reflects the court's attempt to craft a just and balanced solution to the question of which bankruptcy court will become the next custodian not only of these cases, but also of these letters."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.