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State And Local Community Responds As Blackjewel's Bankruptcy Settles In


Since 4 p.m. yesterday, Gillette's Wyoming Workforce Center has seen 160 people visit from Blackjewel. This morning, the center opened up early and still had people lined up at the door. The West Virginia coal company Blackjewel LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy yesterday and has since closed the doors to its mines due to a lack of cash.

Department of Workforce Services (DWS) came together with Governor Mark Gordon and other state agencies to start answering questions like: what's next? DWS talked about handing out rapid response packets to help people get oriented to the job market. They hope to help with job searches, job training, developing resumes, and pointing to in-demand occupations around the state. One audience member asked if it was too early to talk about all this since workers aren't technically laid off.

"The gates are locked. They can't go to work. We feel like we should allow them to file so we're working with them from that respect," said Rick Mansheim, supervisor for Gillette's Workforce Center.

At the press conference, one employee brought up his paychecks were bouncing. In bankruptcy filings, Blackjewel writes it owes workers about $5 million in backpay.

"I, along with several other employees, was given a paycheck that the bank took and held and was told me is fraudulent. No good. It was not able to even cash a paycheck. Do you know if there's anything that I can do in that situation?" one employee asked the Governor. Some Blackjewel employees on Facebook reiterated the same problems, adding checks have since cashed. A DWS employee recommended he contact labor standards and file a claim.

DWS will hold two information sessions to help workers: one tomorrow, July 3, at 2 p.m. and another Monday, July 8, at 9 a.m. Both sessions are located at Gillette College, Technical Education Center, Flex Space.

Poster for the Department of Workforce Services informational sessions
Credit Wyoming Department of Workforce Services
Wyoming Department of Workforce Services
Poster for the Department of Workforce Services informational sessions.

When Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality found out facilities at the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines would be unmanned, its first step was to make sure Blackjewel had properly bonded to pay for reclamation. Todd Parfitt, director of DEQ, said that wouldn't be a problem.

"There's no question that we have adequate bonding in place for both facilities if we get to a situation, and we're not there yet, but if we got to a situation where we had to forfeit on those bonds, we have sufficient [bonds]," Parfitt said.

According to a 10-Q filed by Contura, Blackjewel has $237 million worth of surety bonds. Whether that will be enough to pay for a full reclamation depends on state standards.

The DEQ's next step was securing the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines with the help of the local Sheriff's office. In coordination with the Department of Homeland Security and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, DEQ sent inspectors to make sure there were no immediate health or safety risks.

"We're waiting to hear the feedback on that but we're going to look at things like: are there any immediate fire risks? Are there any water issues associated with the facility? Have all of the fuel valves been closed appropriately? Those types of things," Parfitt said.

Meanwhile in Gillette, throngs of ex-employees have announced their support on Facebook. Many have posted jobs, others have offered household supplies like free detergent, lunches, and general support.

Recent bankruptcy documents highlight Blackjewel's difficulty in securing short-term funding to pay for salaries and normal operations. Lawyers are asking a West Virginia court for an emergency hearing to argue for an alternate debtor-in-possession plan.

Governor Mark Gordon said he has not heard from Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops, but looks forward to his call.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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