Patriot filed for bankruptcy protection on July 9, 2012, in large part because of the health-care and pension liabilities it assumed in taking over Peabody and Arch coal mines.
"Patriot remains committed to a fair outcome for our stakeholders, while securing the necessary savings to successfully emerge as a long-term coal producer," Hatfield stated. "The decision of the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel is a welcome development that will help Patriot achieve these goals."
Most Heritage Coal employees work in mines in the Midwest. The majority of miners transferred to Patriot from Peabody and Arch work in West Virginia and Kentucky mines.
UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts called Wednesday's decision "a bright ray of good news in what has been a long, dreary period for the retirees, their dependents and widows who have been desperately worried about what's going to happen to their health care.
"Peabody has spent years trying to get rid of its obligations to the thousands of retirees who made it the richest coal company in the world," Roberts said in a statement. "This decision foils part of that plan. And it makes us even more determined to keep fighting to make sure the company lives up to its entire obligation to these miners."
The UMW supported Patriot and Heritage's appeal of Surratt-States' decision.
Last Friday, UMW miners in West Virginia and Kentucky voted to approve a new contract with Patriot by an 85 percent majority. That contract included what the union termed significant improvements in the terms and conditions of employment and benefits from those approved by Surratt-States in her May 29 opinion.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said, "Peabody's attempt to shed its obligations to union miners was unjust, unfair and unconscionable. I'm incredibly pleased that an appeals panel recognized that and overturned a decision that would have broken a solemn promise Peabody made.
"It's another ray of hope for retirees who worked day and night to provide for their families. Still, protecting the health benefits and pensions of our coal miners is something we all must continue fighting for -- and I pledge to do all I can to make sure it never comes to this again," Rockefeller said.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjny...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.