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Miners’ letters lobby Patriot bankruptcy judge

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dozens of retired coal miners from around the country are sending handwritten letters to a federal judge in New York City to let her know how they feel about the Patriot Coal bankruptcy and its potential impact on their pensions and health-care benefits.

More than 100 such letters have in recent days been added to the court record of the case, which the United Mine Workers union is hoping to have moved to bankruptcy court in Southern West Virginia.

In one of the letters, Arley and Alice Pettry, of Whitesville, say that Patriot miners "gave their very best years in health to make billions" for coal companies, only to be faced with losing their health-care benefits just when they need them most.

"I would just like to say in my own voice the indignity that I am feeling at this moment," the letter said. "I would like for those few to sit back and put themselves in our places."

Leon Smith, a retired miner from Nortonville, Ky., told U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Shelley C. Chapman that he took early retirement from his mining job to ensure he kept his pension and health-care benefits.

"I felt that my insurance and my pension were more important to me and my family," Smith wrote. "And now they are trying to take this all away and I feel that it is very unfair to me because I would be unable to buy the medicine that I need and my hospital care that could come at a later date."

Geraldine Bardle, a miner's widow from Pinckneyville, Ill., told the judge she's afraid she'll have to sell her home to pay her medical expenses if Patriot is able to shed itself of liability for such payments. Bardle has twice been diagnosed with breast cancer and currently takes medication for hormones lost during her treatments.

"Please bear in mind all of us who need your help in your decision," Bardle wrote.

Last month, when a New York hearing was video-streamed into Charleston, Chapman told lawyers she was not interested in hearing how many miners packed the courtroom to watch the hearing or gathered outside for a UMW rally.

Seeking to move the case to Charleston is part of the UMW's campaign to avoid having Patriot shed liabilities for retiree pensions and health-care benefits -- not to mention its union contract at several large active mines -- as part of its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Patriot filed the case in July in New York, citing the location there of two subsidiaries that were formed only weeks before the filing.

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 Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

Along with its union pension and health-care liabilities, Patriot cited environmental costs in its bankruptcy filing, specifically noting that the costs of treating selenium pollution could run into "hundreds of millions of dollars."

Last month, lawyers for Patriot and various citizen groups told U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers in Huntington that a deal on how to handle selenium liabilities had fallen through. Now, Patriot wants Chapman to issue an order exempting the selenium litigation from a bankruptcy-related hold on all Patriot lawsuits so the company can ask for more time to clean up its pollution.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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