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Kentucky Miners Join Chorus of Outrage Toward Patriot Coal

Gale Harron is a widow who could lose her health and retirement benefits in a Patriot Coal bankruptcy. Photo by Dan Heyman.
Gale Harron is a widow who could lose her health and retirement benefits in a Patriot Coal bankruptcy. Photo by Dan Heyman.
April 3, 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A loud protest this week included voices from the coal fields of Kentucky, as current and former miners and family members rallied against Patriot Coal, marching on the company's Charleston offices.

Thousands are concerned about the coal company's plan to strip retired miners and their dependents of health and pension benefits as part of the company's bankruptcy process.

Among the protesters was Stanley Sturgill, a Harlan County miner and mine inspector for 41 years. Sturgil said he believed what Patriot is trying to do is "immoral."

"We sweated blood over all these years to try to get some kind of a little benefit, pension, some kind of health care," he said, "and my gut reaction is, is they're trying to take that away from all of us."

Many of the miners who may lose benefits never worked for Patriot. The United Mine Workers union claims the company was created so that Peabody Energy and Arch Coal could spin off subsidiaries with a lot of retirees. Peabody has insisted that Patriot was viable when it was created in 2007, but that business has declined since then. A judge in St. Louis now is considering Patriot's bankruptcy plan.

Gale Herron, a miner's widow who is among the 20,000 people whose benefits are at risk, chokes up when she talks about how her husband always told her she would have health care after he died.

"He worked 26 years," she said. "He put his time in. He would be devastated if he was here and he was hearing them talk about taking the medical card."

The company said it needs to be relieved of the health-care and pension obligations in order to be financially viable. However, former Patriot miner Ricky Coalson said it made him angry that the company also wants to give executives more than $6 million in bonuses.

"I worked with some good men that are salaried people from Patriot," he said. "I'm not angry at them. But when you look at the corporation, why can't they put that money onto the medical expenses?"

The union warned them from the start that Patriot was created to go bankrupt, said Coalson, predicting that other, similar corporations will, too.

"From Day One when they done it - spin off from Peabody - the union said that this was their plan to get rid of their obligations," he said. "If they get by with it, it's just a matter of time 'fore the rest of them follow suit."

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY