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Dealmakers Drop a Plan to Divert Millions from the Health Insurance of Retired Coal Miners

A bankruptcy plan for Patriot Coal Corp. would have thrown into question the medical coverage of 208 miners, wives and widows.

The parties involved in the bankruptcy of a coal company have stepped away from a deal that would have diverted $18 million intended for the health insurance of retired Indiana miners to pay attorneys and other bankruptcy costs.

The turnabout came after ProPublica reported last week that the deal worked out by the lawyers and financiers involved in the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal Corp. would leave only $3 million to cover the guaranteed health-care benefits of 208 retired miners and their dependents, enough to last only about a year and a half. The deal was especially striking given that the unionized miners had themselves never worked for Patriot. Instead, they were having their benefits stripped of their value through an elaborate bit of financial engineering.

Over the weekend, former president Bill Clinton attacked the deal in a speech to West Virginia Democrats in Charleston, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said the deal was “outrageous and must be stopped” in a statement to the media.

On Wednesday, at Patriot’s bankruptcy hearing in Richmond, the company told the court that it was withdrawing the plan to strip the retirees’ benefits. While the details remain to be worked out, the action means that the miners will retain the health benefits they were originally promised.

The retirees had worked for Squaw Creek Coal Company, a joint venture in southern Indiana between Alcoa and Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, which provided fuel for a nearby Alcoa plant. The venture had mostly petered out by 2000, but as part of the agreement, Alcoa was covering the cost of the guaranteed retiree health benefits, about $2 million per year.

In 2007, Peabody spun off a new entity called Patriot Coal and assigned to it a few of its mining assets and a lot of its pension and health care liabilities. Patriot also acquired Peabody’s stake in what remained of the Squaw Creek venture with Alcoa, which continued to pay the retirees’ health benefits.

Loaded up as it was with Peabody liabilities, Patriot stood little chance of surviving, especially with the coal industry suffering from competition from cheap natural gas, tougher environmental regulations and the depletion of easily recoverable reserves in Appalachia. Patriot entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2013, and exited it only after getting new backing from a New York hedge fund called Knighthead Capital, and after arranging to load the health care obligations of more than 11,000 retirees into a fund overseen by the United Mine Workers of America.

Earlier this year, Patriot filed for Chapter 11 again. This time, it is auctioning off its mines and going out of business. And to cover the costs of the proceedings, its lawyers, from the New York firm of Kirkland & Ellis, struck an unusual agreement with Alcoa. Alcoa agreed to pay Patriot $22 million in exchange for Patriot assuming the health care obligations for the Squaw Creek retirees. This saved Alcoa money, since the actuarial value of the obligation was about $40 million.

But instead of putting the $22 million toward the actual health care obligations, Patriot stated infilings to the court that it was going to put only $4 million toward that purpose—$3 million for rank-and-file miners and $1 million for salaried Squaw Creek managers. The rest, $18 million, would go to the attorneys and others involved in the proceedings.

The Squaw Creek retirees would be moved into the same union-overseen fund that now covers the health care for the more than 11,000 retirees that Patriot passed off in the 2013 bankruptcy. That fund is expected to run out of money in a few years, a fate that the addition of the Squaw Creek retirees, with only 1.5 years of funding, would accelerate. As it is, Congress is already having to weigh whether to bail out the fund with taxpayer dollars.

An editorial this week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—in Peabody’s headquarters city—called the deal a classic example of the dark coal-industry joke: “The company gets the profits; the miners get the shaft.”

Now, with Patriot’s cancellation of the deal with Alcoa, that outcome has been avoided. It remains to be seen how the Squaw Creek health care obligation will be handled—whether Alcoa will continue to pay for it on an ongoing basis, or move the retirees into the union-overseen fund with enough money to cover them.

But off the table is the notion that the benefits could be siphoned off to pay for the bankruptcy proceedings at a company the miners never worked for.

Patriot Coal, its lawyers and Alcoa all declined to comment on the matter.

“We are pleased that our retirees at Squaw Creek will continue to get the health care they were promised and have earned,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the mine workers union.

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