A coal worker holding the actual heart of Peabody Energy chief executive Stephen Howlett

ShutterstockA coal worker holding the actual heart of Peabody Energy CEO Gregory H. Boyce. 

If there’s anything darker than coal, it’s the hearts of coal company executives. They ask workers to risk their lives to extract the filthiest of all fossil fuels — and then they screw over those workers.

On Thursday, police arrested 14 people in St. Louis, Mo., during the latest in a series of large union-organized protests against such dark-heartedness by Peabody Energy. Workers say the company robbed them of desperately needed retirement health benefits through a cynical corporate maneuver.

The coal giant spun off a subsidiary in 2007 called Patriot Coal, which then bought up some business assets from Arch Coal. Patriot assumed many of Peabody’s and Arch Coal’s worker liabilities — it’s legally on the hook to pay for the health care and other retirement benefits of former workers and their families.

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But oh, guess what, Patriot declared bankruptcy. Now it’s asking a bankruptcy court to allow it to weasel out of more than $1 billion worth of health and other benefits owed to retired miners, many whom never worked for Patriot and many of whom were left ill by their former jobs.

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From an interview with an affected miner by NPR reporter Maria Altman:

CHARLES WHITLOW: I think there’s 12 pills there every morning, and there’s six pills here for supper.

ALTMAN: He takes more than two dozen pills daily, some of them for coal-related health problems, including CWP, known as black lung. Last year, he says the cost of all those pills topped $13,000.

WHITLOW: I lost my trust I had in Peabody. I used to be proud to say that I did work for Peabody Coal Company, but I’m a long ways from telling anybody that now.

ALTMAN: Whitlow and his wife, Brenda, are among hundreds who’ve written letters to the bankruptcy court asking that Peabody be held accountable.

University of Illinois law Professor Robert Lawless says the judge’s options are limited, though, because it’s perfectly legal for corporations to spin off both assets and liabilities.

As for Patriot Coal, Lawless says a bankruptcy law does make it harder to drop retirees’ health benefits, but he says it still happens, most recently with Hostess Brands Incorporated.

The United Mine Workers of America claims in court that Peabody set up Patriot to fail. The union alleges that the spinoff company was created as a way of wiping Peabody’s hands clean of obligations to care for the health of its retired workers.

From the St. Louis Business Journal‘s coverage of Wednesday’s protest:

An estimated 2,000 attended the protest, the fifth such protest in St. Louis, according to Phil Smith, director of communications for UMWA.

Union members planted 1,000 white crosses at Kiener Plaza. According to union officials, the crosses were “in memory of the 666 fatalities that have occurred at mines operated by Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Patriot Coal or their subsidiaries since 1903 and symbolize the more than 22,000 active and retired miners, dependents and surviving spouses who will be at risk if Patriot Coal, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal succeed in their efforts to effectively eliminate contractually-guaranteed health care benefits.”

Protesters traveled from Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virgina to attend the protest.

Peabody’s response to the rally? From St. Louis Public Radio:

Peabody officials have said that the miners should bring their concerns to the bankruptcy court.