Patriot faces cost reductions or liquidation: CEO

PATRIOT president and chief executive officer Bennett Hatfield is the latest in a string of high profile people to publicly speak out about the company’s bankruptcy court proceedings.

Staff Reporter

As Patriot barrels towards its April 23 Bankruptcy Court decision, fellow producer Murray Energy filed an objection against the company’s attempts to “dump” $2.3 billion in retiree liabilities on other coal companies.

West Virginia Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller and Congressman Nick Rahall have pledged their support for the union’s fight against the company while West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations president Richard Trumka have also shared their two cents.

Hatfield is the latest to chip in, fighting back against “unfounded allegations, inflammatory personal attacks and factual inaccuracies”, in a commentary published in the Charleston Daily Mail.

“In the months ahead, Patriot Coal will go in one of two directions: either the company will obtain the significant cost reductions it needs to survive, or it will face the very likely possibility of liquidation,” Hatfield wrote.

He said the company's liquidation would result in the loss of thousands of jobs and would have a devastating impact on workers, their families, retirees and their communities and could only be prevented by concessions from the United Mine Workers of America.

“The truth is that the company's proposal was driven not by corporate greed, immorality or some desire to break longstanding promises but rather by the recognition that Patriot simply cannot emerge from bankruptcy unless and until it obtains the cash savings necessary for Patriot to remain viable.

“The UMWA is now being asked to do its fair share to help Patriot survive.”

Hatfield said the company did not aim to “throw out” its collective bargaining agreement with UMWA but rather modify union employees' wages and benefits so they were in line with the regional labor markets and with non-represented workers who did the same jobs.

Hatfield said Patriot was not proposing to eliminate health care or pensions for UMWA retirees but rather to allow for continued health care coverage at a level that Patriot could afford under a proposed voluntary employees' beneficiary association trust.

“Since November, we have engaged in good-faith negotiations with the UMWA to try to reach common ground,” he wrote.

“Our current proposals reflect several improvements as a result of those discussions and we continue to work toward a consensual resolution with the UMWA.

“However, as there is no assurance that we can reach a consensual agreement within a timeframe that avoids severe disruption to our business, Patriot has recently asked the bankruptcy court for relief by filing a motion to request these necessary changes without the consent of the UMWA.”

Patriot last week filed a request with the US Bankruptcy Court to investigate coal producer Peabody Energy’s 2007 spin-off of the company.

“No party is as central to a full understanding of the path leading from the creation of Patriot Coal Corporation in 2007 to its current bankruptcy than its former parent Peabody Energy Corporation,” the court filing read.

“Patriot is a Peabody creation. Peabody selected which of its mines would become Patriot’s. Peabody determined what projections would underlie Patriot’s business plan. Peabody decided which liabilities it would retain and which it would unload onto Patriot.”

“And Peabody dictated the contractual terms that govern Patriot’s ongoing obligations to Peabody after the spin-off.”

Since filing for bankruptcy last July, Patriot announced its retiree health liability had ballooned to $1.6 billion.

The company said it needed to shed at least $150 million more in labor costs to avoid liquidating in bankruptcy.

Patriot has already filed a lawsuit to force Peabody to continue paying for the healthcare costs of certain retirees the company employed before the spin-off.

In his commentary, Hatfield acknowledged the company’s ongoing investigations into the spin off.

“Our efforts also include steps to hold Peabody Energy accountable for its actions and obligations,” he wrote.

“In March, Patriot filed a lawsuit against Peabody in an effort to ensure that Peabody will continue to fund its obligations to certain retirees in full.

“We are also continuing to investigate other potential claims against Peabody and others with the support and assistance of the Unsecured Creditors' Committee and the UMWA.

“Failing to make any changes in UMWA employee costs and retiree medical coverage, as many uninformed critics are advocating, would simply force the company into liquidation – and that is the worst possible outcome for retirees, employees and the communities in which we operate.”

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