GILLETTE — Wednesday wasn’t a good day for Melissa Peterson-Worden.
Like nearly 600 of her Blackjewel LLC coworkers locked out of the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines in Campbell County since July 1, she’s spent the last three weeks hoping she’ll be called back to work while applying for new jobs.
Down to the last $432 in her bank account, Peterson-Worden received two rejection letters from potential employers Wednesday and said feelings of despair had started to creep into her outlook for the near future.
“It was a hard day for me, that’s for sure,” she said.
But the pendulum has been swinging freely Thursday morning.
She woke up Thursday to learn she may be called back to work soon because Blackjewel LLC has reached a deal to sell the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte surface coal mines in Campbell County along with a mine in West Virginia.
If approved, Contura Energy would become the stalking horse bidder for Blackjewel’s western assets, along with the Pax Surface Mine in West Virginia, according to a motion filed early Thursday morning with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.
The linchpin of the deal is the $20.6 million in cash Contura will put down as a deposit that the company can use immediately to continue to keep up its shuttered coal production operations around the United States. The agreement may be good news for the nearly 600 workers locked out of its Wyoming mines, but will still leave about 1,000 workers at 29 other Blackjewel properties in limbo. After three weeks of negotiating with creditors and potential buyers, it’s the only deal Blackjewel could get that allows the company to avoid filing a straight Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation, the motion says.
While other Wyoming Blackjewel workers have already found other jobs, Peterson-Worden said she “absolutely wants to go back” and that she wants the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines to continue to be important parts of the Powder River Basin coal community.
“My loyalty is not to Blackjewel, it’s to Eagle Butte, Belle Ayr and this community,” she said. “When I first read (the news about a potential sale), I thought I’d be, like, ‘Oh my God, it’s over!’ But my first thought was actually, ‘What about the (workers in) the East?”
She said it’s difficult to be too happy for herself knowing that 1,000 others at Blackjewel’s Appalachia mines may never get their coal mining jobs back.
“My next thought then was, ‘OK, if we need to hire anyone from the East, I have an extra bedroom and 3 acres they can park a camper on,” Peterson-Worden said. “I really thought the reaction would be, ‘Thank God it’s over,’ but it wasn’t. It’s been tainted with this other bit of sadness for them.”
The stalking horse sale will allow Contura or another entity that bids more to operate the mines “for an estimated minimum of six to 12 years,” Blackjewel’s motion says.
Blackjewel will have an emergency hearing at 12:30 p.m. Thursday to present its motion to the bankruptcy court. If approved, it could bring Contura Energy full circle with the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines.
Contura was formed as a stalking horse bidder for the mines when they were sold during the 2015 bankruptcy of Alpha Natural Resources. It operated the mines until selling them to Blackjewel in December 2017 in a deal for no money, but in which Blackjewel assumed debt and liabilities associated with the mines.
Contura has a financial stake in seeing the mines remain open because it still holds the permit to operate in Wyoming and is still on the hook for guaranteeing nearly $250 million in reclamation obligations, said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming.
Because of that, Contura was compelled to work out a stalking horse bid to protect its interests in the Wyoming mines, he said.
By Greg Johnson
Gillette News Record Via Wyoming News Exchange