you’re too late in asking

If you’re a fan of John Prine, you’re familiar with his song Paradise. If you’re not a fan of John Prine, well damn…what the hell is wrong with you? But if you’re not a fan I’ll educate your sorry ass. Listen to this:

That song is based on actual events. There really was a town in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky called Paradise. You can still find it on Google Maps, though all you’ll see is a coal processing plant in the bend of a chalky river.  And in 1962, just as the song says, the Peabody Coal Company did, in fact, bring in the world’s largest shovel to dig for coal. It was a monstrous fucking shovel, as you can see by this old post card.

peabody coal shovelBe sure to look in the lower right hand corner. Those soft little squishy things? Those are people.That’s how big this shovel is. The scoop could hold 115 cubic yards of…well, of whatever it scooped up, and I suspect it could scoop just about anything it wanted. Peabody Coal named the shovel Big Hog, and just like the song says, they used it to dig for coal until the land was forsaken.

peabody coal shovel3

Big Hog was retired from service in the mid-1980s, after twenty-some years of faithful service. Okay, the service was destroying the land — but Big Hog did it faithfully, day after day, week after week, year after year. Peabody Coal honored that service by burying the massive shovel in what’s probably the world’s biggest grave for a machine. They interred the shovel in one of the pits it dug. It’s still there.

If only Peabody treated its human workers with that same respect and dignity.

The Peabody Coal Company is now Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal provider. They provide coal to China, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Indonesia, and Singapore, as well as the United States. In fact, they generate 10% of the electricity used in the United States and somewhere around 2% of electricity generated throughout the world. Peabody Energy is big. They hold majority interests in twenty-eight surface and underground mining operations.

peabody energy dream bigOne of those operations is Patriot Coal. Peabody created Patriot in 2007, giving them around 13% of their coal reserves. That made Patriot a major player in coal. But Peabody also gave Patriot around 40% of their health care liabilities. That’s right, Peabody dumped the health care costs for more that 8,000 men and women who retired from Peabody onto a new company.

You won’t be surprised to know that coal mining is hard work, and coal miners — both those who work on the surface and those who work underground — experience a lot of long-term health problems. Unions for coal workers naturally include health care costs for retirees in the contracts they negotiate with coal providers. By shifting those costs to Patriot Coal, Peabody Energy was no longer responsible for them.

So what does Patriot Coal do? They soon buy Magnum Coal, which was a subsidiary created by the Arch Coal Company — the second-largest mining company. Arch Coal had saddled Magnum with the health care costs of more than 2000 retired Arch coal miners. So by acquiring Magnum, Patriot — a company that’s only five years old — suddenly found itself overwhelmed by health care costs for more than ten thousand workers who never actually worked a day in their lives for Patriot.

patriot coal companyHere’s a surprise: Patriot Coal couldn’t afford to pay for the health care needed by all those retirees. As a result, last summer they were forced — forced — to file for bankruptcy to protect the company from all those health care expenses.

Last week, Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States ruled Patriot would be allowed to disregard the health care benefits the mine workers had been guaranteed in their contracts with Peabody and Arch. The judge, who was appointed in 2003 by President George W. Bush, acknowledged that Patriot Coal may have actually been “created to fail.” But the transfer of retirement benefits to that company was legal — and some sacrifices have to be made in order for the company to survive. So tough shit, mine workers. In her ruling, she even suggested the mine workers union was partly at fault for “demanding benefits that the employer cannot realistically fund in perpetuity.” As if the union was to blame for management’s decision to sign the contract.

That wasn’t the only recent decision Judge Surratt-States issued in regard to the Patriot Coal Company bankruptcy. About three weeks ago she agreed to allow Patriot to distribute US$6.9 million in bonuses to 225 of their corporate executives and salaried employees.

Mine workers denied the benefits guaranteed them by contract, executives given bonuses, coal companies relieved of the burden of keeping any promises they made — but hey, at least Big Hog got a decent burial. That’s pretty cool.

And daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay.
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking.
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.

7 thoughts on “you’re too late in asking

  1. It remains remarkable that any politician who utters a word against the coal industry in West Virginia has no chance of getting elected, considering how utterly shitty big coal has treated its employees from day one.


    • Coal country politics resembles banana republic politics. It’s not as violent as it used to be, but the political climate is just as repressive and corrupt. It’s pretty hard for under-educated miners to out-politic the wealthy corporations…and getting harder for them all the time. This is me pointing out the obvious.


  2. Ah, John Prine is wonderful. We heard him in concert years ago, opening for Arlo Guthrie. Prine stood all alone on the circular rotating stage with his guitar and he held that crowd with just his guitar and his voice. And man, John Prine was SO GOOD.


    • I first saw John Prine shortly after he released his debut album (yeah, I’m that old). He was playing in a sort of roadhouse just south of Baton Rouge. Just him, a guitar, and a pitcher of draft beer on a stool beside him.

      I’ve seen him a couple of times since then…the last time about four or five years ago. He was looking old and beat all to hell, but he put on a fine show all the same.


  3. I grew up in WV, I’m from a coal family, I married a coal miner, I have family and friends who died in the coal mines. It is a dirty business from top to bottom. You’ve written a great article about the kind of games coal companies play with miner’s lives.


    • It’s infuriating from top to bottom, isn’t it. They treat miners (and the families of miners) as if they were disposable, they consistently negotiate contracts in bad faith, then use legal trickery to scrap those contracts, and then blame the workers for the need to file bankruptcy (while paying out bonuses to the executives), and use the bankruptcy to get out from under the debts they deliberately acquired.

      Top to bottom, infuriating.


      • They’re just taking their cue from the government’s treatment of this country’s native populations, with whom they negotiated treaty after treaty, then said, “Oops! We didn’t mean it.”


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