How bankruptcy helps the coal industry avoid environmental liability
This story was originally published by ProPublica and Mountain State Spotlight and is republished with permission.
Whenever a hard rain fell on Harlan County, Kentucky, the mud, rocks and debris from the Foresters No. 25 mine pounded down the hillside into the community of Wallins Creek.
Local residents repeatedly complained about washed-out culverts and mud in their yards. Time after time, county work crews came out after a heavy rain to repair Camp Creek Road, a water line that runs alongside it and a local bridge. The strip mine’s owner, Blackjewel, fixed some problems, but when the rains came again, so did the muddy flooding.
Amber Combs, who lived down the hill from Foresters, recalled a day in August 2017 when “the water was rushing down and the yard was a muddy slush pond. It was literally like a river around my house.” Combs complained to Kentucky regulators, who fined Blackjewel $1,300, which it never paid. Overall, under Blackjewel’s ownership, Foresters would run up 17 violations and more than $600,000 in unpaid fines.
Founded in 2008 by West Virginia native Jeff Hoops, Blackjewel grew in just a decade to become the sixth-largest coal producer in the U.S., partly by accumulating mines like Foresters that had gone bankrupt. By 2018, it boasted more than 500 mining permits in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. Then, in July 2019, Blackjewel stunned the industry by declaring bankruptcy, with claims against it later estimated at $7.5 billion.
That December, environmental groups where Blackjewel operated warned the bankruptcy judge that, while he was focusing on what they called the company’s “significant financial mismanagement,” he should also be aware of “severe environmental mismanagement problems.”
“Reclamation work, water treatment, and other expenses related to environmental compliance should be approved and prioritized” in the bankruptcy case, the environmental advocates wrote.
Kentucky regulators agreed. But, citing longstanding case law, the judge rejected their request. Instead, bankruptcy trustees began divvying up the company’s assets among preferred creditors such as banks and hedge funds. Problems at Foresters and other Blackjewel sites persisted. By mid-2020, there were more than 600 outstanding violations of state mining and reclamation standards at the company’s mines in Kentucky, including 450 since the bankruptcy filing. On top of that, regulators had cited Blackjewel mines for more than 13,000 violations of Kentucky water quality rules, mostly for failing to monitor pollution discharges.
The Blackjewel case, still unresolved and nearing its fourth anniversary this July, highlights the environmental toll of what has become a central feature of the coal industry’s business strategy: bankruptcy. Over the past decade, Blackjewel and other coal companies have found two ways to use bankruptcy to their advantage. First, they expanded their holdings by acquiring other companies’ bankrupt mines, which they hoped would turn a temporary profit during upticks in coal prices and production within the industry’s long-term decline.
Then they declared bankruptcy themselves, entering an arena where they didn’t have to pay all of their debts, and where environmental liabilities took a back seat to banks and other financial creditors. As more coal companies busted, hundreds of mines cycled through repeated bankruptcies. Some, like Foresters, are no longer producing coal, yet they continue to pollute their communities.
A first-of-its-kind analysis by ProPublica and Mountain State Spotlight has documented that mines that have gone through multiple bankruptcies also tend to create more environmental damage. By combining data from federal bankruptcy court filings and state regulatory records, we identified mining permits that have been through more than one bankruptcy and compared the number of environmental violations they’d accrued to violations for mines that had not been through bankruptcy.
We found that the median number of environmental violations for surface and underground mines that had been through multiple bankruptcies between 2012 and 2022 in Kentucky was almost twice the median number for mines that had not, and 40 percent higher in West Virginia. Blackjewel mines in Kentucky that have gone through multiple bankruptcies had more than twice as many violations as the state median for nonbankrupt mines. Our analysis could not determine if bankruptcy caused the environmental violations or was simply associated with them. Read about our methodology here.
The analysis suggests that the bankruptcy system is “keeping mines alive that are not viable and that are struggling to remain in compliance with environmental laws,” said University of Chicago law professor Josh Macey, co-author of a 2019 study on coal bankruptcies.
Blackjewel’s founder, Hoops, epitomizes how the story of the coal industry and its barons has become inseparable from bankruptcy. He built his empire on bankrupt mines. Then, as Blackjewel’s liabilities mounted, he began seeking new vistas. In the months before Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, according to court records, he transferred tens of millions of dollars into another company that is building a resort in his native West Virginia, part of a broader effort he has described as a noncoal empire he can leave to his children.
Hoops, who declined requests for an in-person or phone interview, said in emailed answers to questions that he didn’t intend for Blackjewel to go bankrupt and that creditors forced him into it. “The model was never to bankrupt the company,” he wrote. “In no way have I benefited from the system.” He added, “I will not recover a cent of my valid claims.” Hoops said that Blackjewel complied with environmental laws and that when violations were issued, it took steps to address them.
Before his bankrupt company left a legacy of mud-shrouded roads and polluted streams, Jeff Hoops was a local hero. He rose from a dysfunctional family and a menial job in the West Virginia coalfields to create a regional economic engine and become a philanthropic pillar of his community.
He and his wife, Patricia Hoops, were all smiles on the front page of the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, West Virginia, in April 2014 when the newspaper named him its “Citizen of the Year.” The article recounted Hoops’ charity work close to home — a residence hall at Appalachian Bible College in Mount Hope, an indoor football practice facility at the University of Pikeville in Kentucky — and halfway around the world: distributing Bibles in Russia, financing construction of an orphanage in India, running a hotel for missionaries in the Dominican Republic. The children’s hospital in Huntington was named for him, thanks to a $3 million gift. So was a local soccer facility, after what the paper called a “generous donation.”
Despite his wealth and success, Hoops remained the modest and deeply religious man that his friends and neighbors had always known. As a major donor to Marshall University’s Thundering Herd athletic program, he would rate a perch in a luxury box at the stadium. But he said he prefers to sit in the stands, where he can feel the crowd’s energy and be closer to the action.
“I’ve invited him into the box but he says, ‘No, I’m okay,’” said John Sutherland, executive director of Marshall’s Big Green Scholarship Foundation.
When Sutherland wants to talk Marshall sports with Hoops, they meet at Shonet’s Country Cafe, a family diner in Milton, West Virginia, for scrambled eggs and sausage, and sometimes a slice of pie.
Born in 1956, Hoops grew up in Bluefield, deep in southern West Virginia along the Virginia border. Bluefield then had 20,000 residents; it counts less than half that many today. Historically, it was a financial hub and railroad center for the coal industry. Now, it promotes itself as “Nature’s Air-Conditioned City” (elevation 2,611), and the local chamber of commerce gives away cold lemonade whenever a summer day hits 90 degrees.
Hoops was the second oldest of five children of Roy Hoops, who worked as a clerk for the Norfolk & Southern Railroad, and Lucy Walker. Roy’s drinking, infidelity and physical abuse of Lucy strained the family, according to court records. Lucy filed for protective orders and divorce several times. When Roy promised to change his behavior, they reconciled.
“Certainly my childhood had its challenges, as my father’s life was controlled by alcohol,” Hoops said.
Hoops was a striver. He sang in the youth chorus at church and made the Bluefield High basketball team as a sophomore despite standing 5-feet-1-inch tall. He sprouted to what he called “a towering 5-8” by 1974, when he graduated from Bluefield and married his high school sweetheart, Patricia Johnson, a week later. He wanted to work right away, but he was only 17, and the minimum age in the coal industry was 18. So he altered his birth certificate and found a job running parts in an underground mine, he said.
In 1975, Hoops joined the engineering department of a mining company, doing surveying and designing ventilation plans. He began going to college at night, eventually earning associate’s and master’s degrees and an executive MBA. Within a decade of high school, he became a top corporate engineer and then vice president of operations for United Coal, which became part of Arch Coal. After leaving Arch in the late 1990s, Hoops established and sold a series of coal companies. A former associate described Hoops as a workaholic driven by a competitive streak. “The joy of his life is coming out on top of a business deal,” the former associate said.
Hoops’ parents divorced in 1985, remarried in 1986 and divorced again in 1991. Roy retired from the railroad and owned an Exxon gas station from 1983 to 2002. On his deathbed in 2014, he called his son to apologize. “I forgave him, told him I loved him, and told him the most important thing was for him to make peace with God,” Jeff Hoops recalled.
When Hoops was growing up, coal was the most powerful business and political player in places like southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. But then, buffeted by skyrocketing natural gas production, cheaper renewable energy prices, and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the industry began to founder.
Makers of everything from asbestos to opioids have used bankruptcy to avoid paying for damage they caused, but the sheer volume of coal bankruptcies outpaced any other sector. At least 60 coal companies went bankrupt between 2012 and 2022, including some of the biggest in the country. The environmental group Appalachian Voices warned in July 2021 that a wave of bankruptcies could leave 633,000 acres of coal mines in the eastern U.S. in need of cleanup, eroding the ability of communities to rebuild economically.
In theory, bankruptcy doesn’t exempt a company from its responsibility to preserve the environment. The 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act requires coal companies to clean up damage as they mine. When mining is over, the land must be put back to “a condition capable of supporting the uses which it was capable of supporting prior to any mining.”
That’s not how it generally works in practice. Coal companies often fall behind on so-called mine reclamation and, with obligations also mounting for worker pensions and health benefits, file for bankruptcy protection. They lay off employees at mines that are no longer productive or profitable, ditch pension and health care liabilities and avoid paying for environmental damages.
For example, coal giants Peabody Energy and Arch Coal created a third company, Patriot Coal, and spun off their mines with environmental problems and pension obligations into it. All three companies eventually went bankrupt, ducking a combined $2.6 billion in liabilities, according to Macey, the University of Chicago law professor. Many of these mines have changed hands since then but still have not been reclaimed.
“Bankrupt coal companies dump their mine cleanup obligations onto communities and taxpayers who simply don’t have the money to pick up the tab,” said Peter Morgan, a Sierra Club lawyer who has tracked coal bankruptcies around the country.
The purpose of bankruptcy is to give desperate people and companies time and relief from creditors so they can get back on their feet. But not all creditors are treated equally. Bankruptcy law gives secured creditors such as banks, law firms, the Internal Revenue Service and equipment suppliers — but not environmental costs or fines — priority for payment.
“Bankruptcy courts are not doing enough to stop conduct that allows coal companies to get out of their environmental responsibilities,” Macey said.
There’s a potential backstop to pay for environmental cleanup: reclamation bonds. Federal law requires coal companies to post these bonds to receive mining permits, as a sort of insurance. The amount that companies are required to put up varies from state to state; in West Virginia, it can be as much as $5,000 per acre of the permit. To secure the bonds, companies pay a surety firm a one-time fee — typically 20 percent to 50 percent of the face value, according to Hoops. If a mining company goes belly up, state regulators can revoke its permits and use the bond money to clean up whatever mess is left. Money from forfeited bonds, sometimes along with other revenue such as environmental penalties or coal production fees, goes into state reclamation funds to restore abandoned mine sites.
But the required bond amounts often aren’t enough to cover all potential costs. Cleanup costs have soared, partly due to larger surface mines that blew up or chopped off entire mountaintops, and partly because modern studies have increasingly identified water pollutants requiring lengthy and expensive treatment. According to a 2021 legislative audit, West Virginia’s reclamation bonds have covered only one-tenth of cleanup costs. Separately, the Appalachian Voices analysis projected cleanup costs in West Virginia alone as high as $3.5 billion.
As a result, state officials are reluctant to revoke permits and take on the financial responsibility for cleanup. What often ensues instead is a game of musical mines. Knowing that they won’t end up on the hook for reclamation, other coal companies buy mines out of bankruptcy — and then often go bankrupt themselves.
The ProPublica analysis identified 2,030 mines in Kentucky and West Virginia that have been through bankruptcy since 2012 — more than a third of all coal mines in those states. Of the bankrupt mines, 491, or 24 percent, have gone through more than one bankruptcy.
Of the 210 bankrupt Blackjewel mines in our database, including 197 in Kentucky and 13 in West Virginia, almost half have gone through at least one other bankruptcy. The vast majority of those — 101 of 103 — are in Kentucky and had a median of 16 environmental violations, more than twice the median for nonbankrupt mines in that state.
Since Blackjewel went bust in 2019, more than 100 of its Kentucky permits have been sold out of bankruptcy — many for the second time, according to court filings. Lawyers jokingly call the second round of bankruptcy “Chapter 22,” or Chapter 11 twice over.
In 1999, Hoops went out on his own with just one mine, the Hunts Branch Mine in Phelps, Kentucky. In 2008, he founded Revelation Energy. It grew, and Hoops changed the name to Blackjewel in 2017 as part of what he called “a strategic restructuring.” The plan was to shift away from providing steam coal for power plants and toward producing more metallurgical coal for steel mills, a market where prices were increasing.
Blackjewel assembled mines from the bankruptcies of James River Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and others. Alpha paid Hoops $200 million in cash and more than $100 million in installments to take about 250 of its mining permits. Every acquisition “was based on a detailed economic model that demonstrated the mines could make money even in a down market,” Hoops said.
The strategy, Hoops said, was working. Blackjewel expanded from central Appalachia to Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. It employed 1,700 miners and boasted 1.2 billion tons of coal available for mining, enough to keep going for many decades.
But in April 2019, two bankruptcy experts questioned whether Hoops would be able to honor his companies’ environmental obligations.
“Rather, his businesses have begun to exhibit a pattern,” Macey and Jackson Salovaara wrote in “Bankruptcy as Bailout,” an article in the Stanford Law Review. “Hoops takes over abandoned mines, receives cash from the company that wants to get rid of them, and then fails to actually remediate the environmental problems.”
Three months later, Blackjewel declared bankruptcy. It cited a roof collapse at a Virginia mine, a spike in workers’ compensation costs and flooding that prevented railroads from moving coal out of Wyoming. It also blamed adverse market conditions, including the rise of cheap natural gas, greater use of renewable energy and increased regulatory pressures.
Energy industry researcher Clark Williams-Derry pointed instead to questionable business decisions, such as Blackjewel locking in prices for steel-making coal just before prices increased sharply. “The signs of financial distress have been evident to anyone who cared to look,” he wrote in a blog post titled, “Seven Bombshells in the Blackjewel Bankruptcy.” Hoops said that lenders forced the timing of the price locks on Blackjewel, costing the company millions of dollars.
Hoops said that key lenders — United Bank and the investment firm Riverstone Holdings — cut off credit for Blackjewel, forcing the firm into Chapter 11. “They had managed to get my funds put on hold before and during the bankruptcy, as I would have never allowed the company to file but for their actions,” Hoops said. United and Riverstone declined comment.
In a press release, Hoops portrayed the bankruptcy as part of an effort to “position the company for long-term success.” But it didn’t feel that way to many Blackjewel miners. Some mines closed, sending workers home without any notice, and without their most recent paychecks. A mine in Wyoming was on fire, and Blackjewel was scrambling to pay employees to put it out.
Joseph Fox, who worked at a Blackjewel coal preparation plant in Virginia, had just taken his family on vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Then, his paycheck bounced. Fox, his wife and their son and two daughters cut their beach trip short.
“They’re kids. All they wanted was a vacation,” Fox recalled. “They didn’t understand, and you don’t want to be telling them your paycheck bounced.”
In Kentucky, a group of miners who missed paychecks blocked a Blackjewel coal train in Harlan County. Hoops said that all of the miners have been paid. Still, they filed claims and lawsuits alleging that they were laid off without due notice.
The bankruptcy trustee settled the lawsuits with a promise that miners would be bumped up in the ranking of creditors. But court documents suggest there will be little money to go around, maybe only enough to pay the lawyers, accountants and consultants managing the liquidation, lawyers monitoring the case said.
By the time of the bankruptcy, Hoops was already preparing for a future outside coal. He set up a family holding company, Clearwater Investments, with his three sons as trustees. Its purpose was to “leave a financial dynasty to Jeff and Patricia’s heirs by investing in several businesses as well as by collecting royalties on various investment properties,” said an internal “executive overview” filed in the bankruptcy case.
Some of the listed holdings retain a connection to coal, including a trucking firm and a mining equipment sales service. Others don’t, like a wheelchair and brace sales firm with sales in 2018 of $8.7 million.
In January 2019, Hoops sent the Clearwater overview to his sons, Jeffrey Jr., Jeremy and Joshua. “I hope by the end of this year to have a nice package together that shows everything we own as it is a vast company now,” he wrote. “Love you guys …. Dad.”
It didn’t take long for Clearwater to surface in the Blackjewel case.
Creditors discovered that in the six months prior to Blackjewel’s bankruptcy filing, as the company was becoming increasingly insolvent, Hoops had transferred at least $34 million from Blackjewel to Clearwater.
Hoops said that these transfers were appropriate because they represented partial repayment of $51.5 million in loans that he and his family had made to Blackjewel since January 2019 via a revolving line of credit. But this explanation didn’t satisfy creditors, who accused him of violating bankruptcy rules by putting himself at the head of the line.
It was a “sweetheart deal,” then-bankruptcy trustee David Bissett told the judge during a July 2019 hearing. Hoops was “protecting his own self-interest” rather than Blackjewel’s employees or creditors, Bissett said.
Lenders were so outraged at Hoops’ money transfer that, as a condition for providing Blackjewel with emergency financing, they forced Hoops to step down as an officer of the company. They also blocked any Hoops family members from taking a management role.
In a farewell email to employees, Hoops defended himself. “No one is hurting more than me over what has occurred,” he wrote. “There has not been one cent taken out of the mining company, the exact opposite I have loaned more money to try to get this company through these difficult times.”
The email continued: “I accept responsibility for being unable to lead this company through these difficult times.” Hoops wrote, “I know in my heart how hard I fought for each of you and this company and to have people threaten me and say I took money out of this company for other projects hurts more than words can express.”
The liquidation trustee sued Hoops and seven family companies, including Clearwater, over the money he shifted from Blackjewel to them in the months before the bankruptcy.
Last August, the trustee settled these cases. Few details were made public, except that as part of the deal Hoops dropped a $2.6 million claim for money he argued Blackjewel owed him.
Hoops said only that the lawsuit was “resolved amicably.” The liquidation trustee declined comment.
Another bankruptcy court fight focused on the Foresters mine.
This wasn’t the mine’s first brush with bankruptcy. U.S. Coal, its original owner, went bankrupt in June 2014. By the time Hoops took over the permit in 2016, the mine was down to fewer than 20 workers, and production was a third of its 2013 peak of 550,000 tons. In 2018, it stopped producing coal altogether, and had only three employees, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
A year into Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, a flood from Foresters eroded part of a local road and damaged a drinking water line. The rest of Blackjewel’s now-idled operations across Kentucky were also polluting their surroundings. Alarmed by the worsening conditions, the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet sought the court’s help. In June 2020, the environmental regulator asked the judge to order Blackjewel’strustee to bring all of the company’s permits into compliance with mining standards and pollution rules.
In a court filing, agency officials warned that Blackjewel sites not only weren’t being restored to pre-mining conditions but weren’t even being maintained to prevent contaminated water from pouring downstream into water supplies. The agency warned of flooded holding ponds being at high risk of “discharging metals and suspended solids into adjacent rivers and streams” and of landslides “that could endanger the lives and the property of residences below.”
In September 2020, a week after state inspectors again cited Foresters for erosion and drainage, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Benjamin A. Kahn held a hearing on the regulators’ complaints. But the concerns about environmental fallout ran smack into a wall of decades-old law. While noting that crews were already responding at Foresters and other sites, the bankruptcy trustee argued that legal precedent gave the judge little scope to intervene. The judge agreed. Citing U.S. Supreme Court and federal appeals court decisions, Kahn instructed the trustee to clean up only “imminent” threats to public safety, not “speculative” threats.
Some problems at Foresters met this standard, and Kahn ordered them fixed. Still, violations for muddy runoff and sediment from holding ponds have persisted there.
Kahn deferred action at dozens of other Blackjewel sites with hundreds of environmental violations that he deemed less severe. Kahn’s analysis didn’t address the risk that if bankrupt mining companies can avoid routine maintenance and reclamation, speculative threats can turn imminent in a hurry. Once the judge’s criteria are met, “it’s too late,” said Lena Seward, lawyer for the Kentucky state regulatory agency. “The road is washed out.”
Kentucky also tried to forfeit bonds for some Blackjewel mines so that the state could begin cleanup. But that’s tied up in a legal challenge by the surety company, which contends that it has the right to restore the sites itself instead of losing the bond money. For other mines, the state and the bond company are still working out terms for cleanup.
Meanwhile, the companies that bought most of the mines haven’t gotten very far with cleanup, sometimes because the state blocked final approval of the purchases due to unresolved violations at mines they already owned. Kentucky regulators acknowledged in an email that they “would like to have seen a faster transfer applications/reclamation process.”
As it acquired mines, Blackjewel posted a total of more than $500 million in reclamation bonds in four states. But that sum may not be enough. State regulators warned the bankruptcy judge in late 2020 that, for the 32 Blackjewel mines without buyers, conditions had deteriorated so much that cleanup costs were estimated at $20 million more than the bonds would cover.
Hoops disputed that the bond amounts were inadequate. The regulators were “wrong,” he said, but he did not elaborate.
In February 2021, the Kentucky cabinet went back to the judge. A Blackjewel mine was showing severe erosion, with sediment ponds so full that they posed what an inspector called “an immediate danger to the public and environment downstream.”
Kahn ruled against the regulator again.
“The violations just continue to mount,” said Kentucky attorney Mary Varson Cromer, who represents coalfield residents in the Blackjewel case. “The whole system is not functioning, and it ends up costing more to reclaim, and it’s the residents and the community that are at risk.”
The game of musical mines is slowing down. Across Appalachia, coal production is forecast to drop more than 20 percent over the next decade. In a market where coal production and prices continue to drop, there’s little demand for Blackjewel’s coal. Almost all its mines in Kentucky, including Foresters, have been sitting idle for four years.
Blackjewel’s case has also bogged down in paperwork, or the lack of it. “The books and records inherited by the trust were woefully incomplete (and largely nonexistent in some instances),” the trustee complained in March 2023, explaining yet another delay.
With Blackjewel behind him, Hoops is looking to the future. Clearwater is building a resort in Milton, where Hoops lives. The project is meant to invoke the splendor of ancient Rome. Hoops named it the Grand Patrician Resort. Patrician has a double meaning: It refers to the ruling class of ancient Rome and also honors Hoops’ wife, Patricia.
Hoops wept as he announced the resort project, which is located on the site of a former children’s hospital. His aunt and his brother-in-law had both been patients there, he told a local newspaper. “I get emotional,” he said. “To see God take something that was used to treat kids that were hurting, a lot of them crippled for life, he always takes something bad and turns it for good.”
The resort’s golf course had a soft opening last August. Construction of a luxury hotel continues. Local press accounts say the site will include a 400-seat steakhouse, a wedding chapel and ballroom and two indoor pools. A second phase is expected to feature another hotel, equestrian trails and a 3,500-seat outdoor arena modeled on the Roman Colosseum. This month, Hoops hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new hiking trail at the resort.
Even though Hoops left Blackjewel four years ago, one of his family-run businesses is still connected to its mines. The insurance company holding the reclamation bonds for the Blackjewel mines that weren’t bought out of bankruptcy has hired Lexington Coal to reclaim them. Its manager is one of Hoops’ sons. Lexington Coal “has not benefited in any way economically” from the reclamation contract, Hoops said.
Joel Jacobs and John Templon contributed data reporting.
This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How bankruptcy helps the coal industry avoid environmental liability on May 8, 2023.