Harvey D. Peyton: Finding a lesson in coal's alphabet soup (opinion)

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Blackhawk Mining was formed in 2010, with an express business plan of buying bankrupt coal assets with hopes of returning them to profitability. A part of that plan included the 2015 acquisition of Patriot Coal’s West Virginia operations, over the strenuous objections of the United Mine Workers union, which represented the people actually working there.

The business model did not work. In July, Blackhawk filed for bankruptcy. Blackhawk’s spokesman said a new company would emerge “stronger and more nimble, to move ahead and pay all of its bills without any noticeable changes to workers.”

That plan did not work so well, either. On Oct. 8, Blackhawk announced the closing of most of its Southern West Virginia operations, putting 350 West Virginians out of work during the Christmas season. The dulcet-voiced head of the West Virginia Coal Association expressed the sentiments of the industry when he said, “Nobody is bothered by it more than the folks at Blackhawk.”

It is hard to imagine that the “folks at Blackhawk,” based in Lexington, Kentucky, are bothered more by the specter of mass joblessness in the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in the country, but, to be objective, one should know who these “folks” are.

Blackhawk Mining LLC, is owned by “folks” named JMP Blackhawk LLC; JMP Coal Holdings LLC; JMP Holdings LLC; TA Potter Holdings LLC; and RWE AG.

There are carbon-based life forms behind some of these monogrammed companies.

The JMP in the soup is one J. Mitch Potter. Mr. Potter is a $500,000 donor to the University of Kentucky basketball program, entitling him to floor-level seats for Wildcats games at Rupp Arena. Perhaps he is “bothered more” than a parent in Logan is “bothered” about how he or she is going to find $10 to go to their child’s high school basketball game — anything is possible. It is possible that Mr. Potter is “bothered more” than a railyard worker in Logan County who doesn’t know if he will get a paycheck in 2020.

Considering Mr. Potter’s $500,000 consulting contract with the bankrupt Blackhawk, it is hard to see how much more he is “bothered.” Again, anything is possible for the truly bighearted.

What about RWE AG? Rheinisch-Westfalisches-Elektrizitatswerk is a name familiar to Kanawha County. It is the German conglomerate that owned West Virginia American Water in the early 2000s. After repeated rate-hike requests, workforce reductions, deferred maintenance and a move of the West Virginia customer service center to a suburb of St. Louis, RWE disposed of its water interests to a group of hedge-funders.

RWE went back to the comfort of its German headquarters after setting the stage for the 2014 disaster that overwhelmed the Kanawha Valley when coal cleaning chemicals poisoned the region’s drinking water. Whether anyone in Essen was “bothered” by the water crisis is not known.

Why is the largest German energy producer investing in marginal Central Appalachian coal producers?

A look at RWE’s public pronouncements — quite available in Europe — shows the answer in this alphabet soup of “folks at Blackhawk.” RWE openly acknowledges working toward complete carbon neutrality no later than 2040. It is a leader in the European development of alternative energy sources. It says that “protecting the climate is a matter close to our hearts” and promotes biomass to entirely replace coal in its portfolio. RWE brands fossil fuels, in particular, for having the disadvantage of adversely impacting the environment.

The European conglomerate is simply using marginal Appalachian coal companies to extract the last ounce of energy from an impoverished and brainwashed region. It is filling a hole in its remaining energy needs with dirty coal, cheaply mined in our backyard. RWE is then free to complete its plan for carbon neutrality without inflicting the curse of economic and environmental damage on its home territory.

A truer picture of colonial exploitation, aided by local factotum, is hard to imagine.

The lesson in this alphabet soup is that West Virginia should never, ever again allow cheap license plates, bumper stickers, gym floor logos or saccharin Christmas greetings to conflate a rapacious, dying industry with the real living, breathing and feeling people of West Virginia. Any legislator who now advocates for even a thin dime of subsidy to this industry should be summarily sent home.

Harvey Peyton is a local historian and attorney with the Peyton Law Firm.

He can be reached at


Funerals for Monday, July 6, 2020

Cogar, Ina - 1 p.m., Dodd & Reed Funeral Home, Webster Springs.

Hickman, Donna - 10 a.m., Hodam Cemetery, near Spencer.

Hilton, Delores - 11 a.m., Second Baptist Church, Ravenswood.

Huffman, William - 1 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Wood, Lori - 2 p.m., Casto Funeral Home, Ravenswood.

Workman, Charles - 1 p.m., Morgantown First Christian Church Disciples of Christ.