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Coal giant Murray Energy seeks bankruptcy protection

CHARLESTON — A major U.S. coal mining company is seeking bankruptcy protection, despite a flurry of regulatory breaks that its CEO pushed for — and received — from the Trump administration.

Ohio-based Murray Energy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization Tuesday, joining a growing list of struggling miners as utilities switch away from coal to cheaper and less-polluting renewable energy or natural gas.

The filing marks a significant political failure for President Donald Trump, who had sought to end a “war on coal” by Democrats as a key part of his campaign and early presidency. Murray Energy was the country’s fourth-largest coal producer in 2018, accounting for 6% of total production, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Other major producers that have sought bankruptcy protection this year include Blackjewel Mining in West Virginia and Cloud Peak Energy in Wyoming.

Murray Energy’s move was necessary to access cash and best position it for long-term success, said former CEO Robert Murray. The company’s operations span Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Utah and West Virginia, as well as Colombia, South America.

Government preference for gas and renewable energy to replace coal-fired power generation, combined with a recent severe reduction in coal exports, delivered a one-two punch that an overextended Murray Energy could not withstand, said Cecil Roberts, president of United Mine Workers of America.

“Now comes the part where workers and their families pay the price for corporate decision-making and governmental actions,” Roberts said in a prepared statement. “But that does not mean we will sit idly by and let the company and the court dictate what happens to our members and our retirees. We have high-powered legal, financial and communications teams in place that will fight to protect our members’ interests in the bankruptcy court.”

West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael said the bankruptcy filing was surprising even with the evident struggles in the coal business, adding that he’s concerned about pensions and worker protections for Murray Energy’s nearly 7,000 employees. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, said on Twitter that Murray Energy must continue meeting its obligations to pay into pension plans for union miners.

The coal giant had signaled that it wasn’t immune to the industry’s downturn earlier this month when it announced it missed loan and interest payments to its lenders. Brian Lego, a research assistant professor at West Virginia University, said the bankruptcy of such a large company is a heavy blow to an already beleaguered sector.

“It doesn’t bode well as far as the overall state of the industry is concerned,” he said.

As CEO, Murray was averse to filing bankruptcy and in recent years he criticized other coal operators that chose to streamline. In a 2016 interview with The Associated Press, Murray lamented the number of bankruptcies in the coal industry and how his competitors were able to shed debt and re-enter the market.

“They come out of bankruptcy, all streamlined, and they don’t close the mines. That’s the key — they don’t close a single mine,” Murray said at the time. “So now you’ve got these companies all streamlined down, dumping their obligations, competing in the same market as me.”

Murray, who on Tuesday was replaced as CEO by Robert Moore, has tied his fortunes to Trump. He hosted a fundraiser for the president in July, which had been expected to raise $2.5 million. He has flexed his influence at the local level as well, donating thousands of dollars to the 2020 campaign of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and successfully pushing for a tax cut on steam coal in the economically depressed Mountain State.

Murray, who has called climate change an “environmental hoax,” is also a proponent of Trump’s regulatory actions aimed at scaling back environmental protections put in place during Barack Obama’s presidency. In the first weeks of Trump’s tenure, Murray presented incoming Cabinet members and other administration figures with a written wish list of environmental regulations he hoped to see knocked down to ease the regulatory burden on the sagging coal industry.

Trump’s own gusto for “clean” and “beautiful” coal and coal miners helped to make Appalachian coal country one of his most fervent bases of support as he racked up big wins in West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and other states.

In March 2017, Trump surrounded himself with coal miners at the White House to sign an executive order pledging to kill off Obama’s legacy effort against climate change, a measure that would have pushed dirty coal-burning plants out of the national power grid.

“We are putting our great coal miners back to work,” Trump said to thunderous applause and cheers at a 2018 rally in West Virginia, where the president also attended a big-money GOP fundraiser hosted by Murray.

“The coal industry is back!” Trump declared.

Trump put Andrew Wheeler, a lobbyist for Murray Energy, in charge of the Environmental Protection Agency. Along with targeting the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, the administration moved ahead on proposals to reduce environmental protections on coal ash, mercury emissions from coal plants, and other smokestack pollutants.

But it was market competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables that was hitting the U.S. coal industry the hardest, driving U.S. coal consumption under Trump to its lowest levels since the Carter administration.

Trump has lessened his call-outs for coal as the industry continues its decline despite his administration’s support.

Power companies announced the retirement of more than 546 coal-fired power units over the last decade, as coal-fired power plants faced economic pressure due to stagnant growth in electricity demand and increased competition from natural gas and renewables, according to the EIA.

“Murray Energy’s bankruptcy filing is another sign of the significant stress on the coal industry today,” said Benjamin Nelson, a Moody’s vice president and lead U.S. coal analyst. “While the demand for thermal coal has been declining for about a decade, healthy export prices helped the industry generate stronger cash flows in 2017 and 2018. A sharp reduction in export prices shines light on poor underlying demand fundamentals for thermal coal in the domestic market.”

Tyson Slocum, energy program director for Public Citizen, said there is little anyone can do to save coal.

“Even when coal companies get exactly the corporate welfare and license to pollute that they want, they still go bankrupt because renewable energy has been outcompeting coal in the market,” he said in a statement. “Instead of propping up the failing coal industry with taxpayer-funded bailouts, we should support the workers in transition and shut these mines down.”

Safety Town provides safe alternative to trick-or-treat

HUNTINGTON — Safety Town, Huntington’s miniature municipality, hosted the third annual Safe Trick-or-Treat event Tuesday night.

The event provided an alternative to door-to-door candy collecting. The event was hosted by the Blue Knights West Virginia III in collaboration with the city of Huntington and Johnson Printing Co.

Vendors set up tables at the buildings around the miniature town to hand out candy and other goodies to children of all ages. Along with lots of candy, children could play games and win prizes.

Trick-or-treat will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2, in Cabell County. It was rescheduled because rain and strong winds are expected to affect the region on Thursday, Oct. 31.

State granted extension to respond to foster care lawsuit

CHARLESTON — Representatives for the state of West Virginia have been granted an extension to respond to a lawsuit filed earlier this month alleging the state has neglected the more than 6,000 children in the state’s foster care system.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Johnston has given the state until Dec. 2 to respond to the lawsuit.

The state has hired Washington, D.C.-based law firm Brown and Peisch PLLC to defend against the lawsuit. According to its website, the firm represents clients in litigation and regulatory matters relating to federally funded health and benefit programs, including Title VI, which provides funding for foster care.

“A request for proposal was issued by DHHR to secure outside counsel for the suit. There were five bidders, and DHHR narrowed the selection to those with experience with this type of litigation and picked the firm with the lowest bid. Brown and Peisch PLLC of Washington, D.C., was selected. Their bid was $575 per hour,” said Allison Adler, communications director for DHHR.

Caroline Brown and Phillip Peisch worked on a 2015 lawsuit against the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources that alleged the way the state ran the Medicaid Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities waiver program violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That case was dismissed with prejudice by Johnston after a settlement was reached, according to court documents.

The current lawsuit was filed by A Better Childhood, a national advocacy group for children; Disability Rights West Virginia, a statewide disability rights organization; and Shaffer & Shaffer PLLC, a state law firm.

Lawyers for the 12 children named in the lawsuit cite a range of statistics and charge the state and DHHR with failing to provide the necessary services that will protect all of the children in the state’s custody. The lawsuit is brought as a class action, seeking to represent all of the children in foster care, and focuses on three subclasses of children: those in foster care with disabilities, those close to aging out of the system without any preparation for adulthood, and children in kinship care.

In a response to media, DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said the state has been making strides to fix the problems of the foster care system since 2013 and the lawsuit would cost the state millions to defend.

Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, said she was surprised to hear the state hired counsel from outside of the state to defend the lawsuit. With more than 10 similar cases under her belt, she said she’s never seen that happen. States usually use the attorney general or counsel in state, she said.

Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.

Forecast of heavy rain, wind changes many area trick-or-treat times

HUNTINGTON — The threat of inclement weather Thursday has prompted Cabell County to move trick-or-treating to 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2.

The National Weather Service on Monday began forecasting up to 3 inches of rain between Wednesday afternoon and Friday morning, with the bulk expected to hit the Tri-State early Thursday night. The rainfall is predicted to remain steady through the night at a rate of two-tenths of an inch per hour until 10 p.m. Thursday, slowing to a trickle by Friday morning.

Winds are expected to pick up with the rain Thursday afternoon, with gusts from 30 mph to 45 mph likely.

By Tuesday afternoon, Cabell County commissioners made the decision to reschedule trick-or-treat in the interest of safety, said Beth Thompson, county administrator.

Although commissioners set trick-or-treat times for the rest of the county, at least two municipalities decided to reschedule before commissioners reached their decision.

The village of Barboursville announced it was moving trick-or-treat to Saturday after hearing from local meteorologists early Tuesday about the predicted storm, said Mayor Chris Tatum.

Tatum said he also had phone conversations with representatives from Milton and the city of Huntington before reaching that decision.

“Parents are spending money on their kids’ costumes, they want to be able to wear their costumes, and the weather is just not going to accommodate that,” he said. “More importantly, they are talking about really windy rain, so safety was the No. 1 concern.”

Huntington later made the same decision to move trick-or-treating within the city, including the Wayne County portion of Westmoreland, to 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2.

The 28th annual Huntington Safe Trick-or-Treat will still be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31, but has been relocated indoors to the Big Sandy Superstore Arena. The event normally takes place on the lawn of the Cabell County Courthouse.

Safe Trick-or-Treat features dozens of community leaders, businesses, civic groups and first responders joining together to pass out candy to Tri-State children in a safe, controlled environment. This is the second time the event has been moved indoors in the event’s 28-year history, according to officials.

In anticipation of Thursday’s inclement weather, several trick-or-treat times were rescheduled locally by Tuesday evening:

  • Trick-or-treat for Milton was rescheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 2. The Halloween Party for the city of Milton was still scheduled to take place Tuesday at April Dawn Park.
  • Neighborhood trick-or-treat times for Ironton and South Point have been changed due to the weather forecast for Thursday evening. Ironton is now scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, while South Point is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
  • Trick-or-treat for Kenova and Ceredo in Wayne County has been moved to 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday.
  • Citing safety concerns, Hurricane Mayor Scott Edwards announced Tuesday morning that trick-or-treat in Hurricane and throughout Putnam County has been rescheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday. Hurricane’s Main Street Trick-or-Treat event has been canceled, Edwards noted.

In Fort Gay in Wayne County, residents were preparing to collect candy Tuesday night after trick-or-treat was rescheduled to coincide with trick-or-treating in Louisa, Kentucky, said Mayor Joetta Hatfield. Hatfield said she and Louisa Mayor Harold Sloan mutually decided to reschedule it after seeing the weather reports.

“My main concern about changing it on such short notice was the fact that parents might not be able to change their schedules in time. Some of them might not be able to get off work or something,” Hatfield said. “That factor alone almost caused me to keep it on Thursday.”

Hatfield said she did not want to reschedule the holiday for Saturday because “it just seems strange to celebrate Halloween in November.”

For the most up-to-date list of trick-or-treat times in the Tri-State, visit Herald-Dispatch.com.

Reporter Luke Creasy contributed to this report. Travis Crum is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.