At Tuesday's protest, more than 750 current and former miners rallied outside the federal building in St. Louis, where a bankruptcy hearing was being held, before marching through the city streets to Peabody's building, according to The Associated Press. Roberts and nine other union members were arrested when they refused to leave after sitting down in the street in front of Peabody's headquarters.
Last July, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, seeking to reorganize amid what the company called "unsustainable labor-related legacy liabilities" including pension and health-care payments and strip-mine reclamation costs.
UMW officials say Patriot 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.
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 spun off by Arch Coal when it got rid of most of its Appalachian operations and their related pension and health-care liabilities.
The UMW says that 90 percent of the retirees listed as Patriot's obligation today never worked for Patriot, but were instead previously employed by Arch or Peabody.
In a class-action lawsuit filed in October in U.S. District Court in Charleston, the UMW and 10 active and retired miners allege that the moves by Peabody and Arch are illegal under a federal law that governs employee benefit plans. Lawyers for Peabody and Arch dispute that and have filed motions to have the case, pending before U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin, dismissed.
Arch Coal had declined comment on the lawsuit, but Peabody spokesman Vic Svec has said Patriot "was a completely viable company" when it was spun off from Peabody in 2007.
"Substantial events after that time, both inside and outside Patriot, significantly affected its future, from Patriot's transformational acquisition of Magnum Coal Co. to Patriot's decisions to make significant changes in its capital structure," Svec said. "Other factors were decreased demand for U.S. coal due to sharp declines in natural gas prices; the softening of the global steel markets; and more burdensome regulations. Patriot notes many of these same factors in its filings with the bankruptcy court."
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."
In November, Patriot agreed to a plan to deal with those liabilities that included its promise to phase out mountaintop removal and other forms of strip mining, a move CEO Ben Hatfield said is in the best interests of the company, its employees and the communities where it operates.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.