Big Virginia Coal Firm Wants to Cut Retiree Benefits

Alpha Natural Resources still bankrolls politicians.



Bankrupt Alpha Natural Resources, the largest coal company in the state, managed to pay out $198,028 to politicians’ races, most of them Republican, while trying to cut benefits to 4,500 of its retirees.

The Bristol-based firm, which bought Richmond-based Massey Energy in 2011, filed for bankruptcy in Richmond federal court this summer because of slumping global prices for metallurgical coal and thermal coal for domestic electricity generation.

Alpha filed papers seeking to cut health and non-pension benefits to its non-union retirees, saying that they represent a $125 million liability on its balance sheet. The benefits involve life insurance and subsidies to help retirees buy health insurance through exchanges.

Opposing the move is Michael J. Quillen, the former founder, chairman and chief executive of the firm, saying the cuts go against the principles upon which the company was founded.

Somehow, however, Alpha’s current management found enough cash to give $164,265 to Republican politicians for their races this year. Bill Carrico, Tommy Norment, Terry Kilgore and Bill Howell got from $10,000 to $11,715 each. Democrat Richard Saslaw got $10,000 as well.

Before it was hit with its financial crisis, Alpha had been one of the top 10 political donors among state corporations. Others are Altria and Dominion.

In 2013, Alpha gave hard-right Republican Ken Cuccinelli $92,500 for his failed attempt to win the governorship.

Alpha also has funded groups that fight renewable energy, such as the Heartland Institute and the Energy and Environment Legal Institute. Both are associated with the Koch brothers, powerful oil and gas men from Kansas who don’t believe climate change is occurring.

They also back the American Legislative Exchange Council, which writes pro-business, pro-fossil templates for state legislatures across the country to use to promote laws the Kochs think are good ones. ALEC appeared at the pinnacle of its influence until disclosures about its practices prompted major corporations such as Google, Microsoft and General Motors to head for the exits and stop funding it.

Another group that got Alpha funding is the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a Northern Virginia advocacy group that backs limited government and free market policies.

Alpha bought now-defunct Massey Energy after the latter firm was in a tailspin following a mine explosion in West Virginia in 2010 that killed 29 miners, the worst in 40 years in this country.

Massey's former boss, Donald Blankenship, is on trial in Charleston for three felonies related to his management of Massey.

Alpha hit hard times when a flood of cheap natural gas and new federal regulations made it more difficult to use coal for electricity. The firm’s treasure trove, however, is coal used to make steel. That market collapsed when the Chinese economy went into a slump.

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