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Kentucky Coal Miner On Why He Decided To Start A Protest Against Blackjewel


Coal miners in Kentucky have been camped out on railroad tracks in Harlan County for more than a week. The company they worked for, Blackjewel, declared bankruptcy last month, stopping mine operations in four states. So the miners took to the tracks to demand their unpaid wages.

Chris Lewis helped start the protest. Until the bankruptcy, he worked at Huff Creek Mine on Lone Mountain. Yesterday we reached him on the tracks shortly after a judge approved the sale of the Kentucky mines to a company called Kopper Glo based in Tennessee.

CHRIS LEWIS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Just tell me what a typical day has been like camped out there on the tracks.

LEWIS: Well, it's hot. It's been pretty hot out here. And then you got your rain. It's hot and wet, you know, kind of sticky. But we're coal miners - we're used to rough conditions and climates and water and all that stuff, you know.

SHAPIRO: Have local people in town been bringing you food? Have you been cooking out over an open fire? What's it been?

LEWIS: Yeah it's been - cooking out on a camp grill. People out of state's been calling in pizzas to the local Pizza Hut. And we've been supported well.

SHAPIRO: So after more than a week of protesting, it seems like you may be about to get what you've been asking for. There's a deal to sell the mine and money set aside to pay back wages. Does that mean you're heading home?

LEWIS: No. It's a step in the right direction. What's been set aside is like probably around 35, 40% of back wages on that. And they decided that they won't stay until we've been fully reimbursed.

SHAPIRO: The deal has set aside about $450,000 of an estimated 2 1/2 million that are owed to the miners.

LEWIS: Right. Right. That's the deal. That's Kopper Glo stepping up.

SHAPIRO: You know, some local officials have said you're actually depriving yourselves of money by blocking the tracks because you are blocking coal that would otherwise get sold. What do you say to that?

LEWIS: We ain't blocking ourselves from that because the coal in them trains, it was going to Hoops. And he wasn't going to pay us anyway. You know what I'm saying?

SHAPIRO: Hoops - that's the former CEO of Blackjewel, Jeff Hoops.

LEWIS: Yes. But now we got a lien on that coal. Now we'll probably get paid from the coal.

SHAPIRO: What's the mood among the protesting miners there on the tracks right now?

LEWIS: It's kind of laid back and peaceful. That's how we kept it this whole protest. We've been peaceful. And, you know, we're all looking after each other just like we would down in the mine. We got each other's back.

SHAPIRO: Are you supporting a family? What's it like living without the paycheck that you've been expecting?

LEWIS: Well, it's rough, I mean, you know. But I'm fortunate. It's just me and my wife. Our kids is grown.

SHAPIRO: You've spent your career working in the coal mines.

LEWIS: Twenty years.

SHAPIRO: I know you have to get through this fight now, but once that's over with, what's the next chapter going to be for you?

LEWIS: Oh, it's going to be coal mining. I've had a coal miner in my family from 1700. It runs deep in my blood. And I'm 44. And hopefully I'll find a coal mine job that I can retire from. That's my goal.

SHAPIRO: You know, Harlan County, Ky., is the site of a mine protest that happened in the 1970s that went on for more than a year. So this is not only a long history of coal mining, it's also a long history of protest. Do you feel like you're a part of that today?

LEWIS: In some ways. We done our protest peacefully, but in Harlan, Ky., we stand up for what we believe is right. That's been embedded in us from childhood up. You know, coal miners is brotherhoods. And we got a whole lot hanging in the balance here that we won't back down.

SHAPIRO: That is miner Chris Lewis speaking with us from the protest site on the railroad tracks in Harlan County, Ky. Thank you for joining us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Thanks to reporter Sydney Boles for helping us talk with Chris Lewis. And we reached out to Blackjewel for comment. A spokesperson said the company, quote, "continues to work around the clock to complete sales as efficiently as possible so the new owners can start the process of re-initiating operations." The statement goes on to say the company looks forward to employees being able to return to work shortly. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.