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Firms could save millions if Vieweg drops lawsuits

Published: Tuesday, May 25, 1999
Page: P6A
Byline: Paul J. Nyden

STAFF WRITER Large coal companies could save millions of dollars if Employment Programs Commissioner William Vieweg withdraws lawsuits against them to collect unpaid debts from their contractors.

Some debts date back to the late 1970s. Contractors amassed millions more in unpaid debts during the past five years.

When Vieweg announced his plans to dismiss $200 million in lawsuits last week, he said it was wrong that debts "be imposed retroactively." He said the lawsuits, initiated while Gaston Caperton was governor, were "based on questionable and untested legal theories." Vieweg specifically cited a 1993 law that "imposed a statutory liability on a prospective basis" on big companies to pay debts for contractors.

Yet some of these debts could go uncollected if Vieweg drops Bureau of Employment Programs lawsuits against the 18 companies, such as Bluestone Coal Corp., the first firm sued in December 1996. Since the late 1970s, Bluestone hired at least 75 contractors. Fifty of those owe a total of $10.2 million to Workers' Comp. Fifteen Bluestone contractors ran up $1.3 million in debts after the new law took effect in January 1994.

Vieweg did not return telephone calls last week, then left on a 10-day vacation.

"It is reasonable to argue the 1993 amendments could be retroactively applied," said Stuart Calwell, a Charleston lawyer whose firm represents injured workers. "That may be a sound position. But putting that argument aside, look at the fact that at least $1.3 million was incurred after the effective date of the 1993 statute. What does Vieweg propose to do about those debts?

"Even if he is right about 'retroactive' debts, Vieweg should leave the post-1993 cases pending, at the very least," Calwell said.

Two Bluestone contractors appear on a delinquent-employers list that Workers' Compensation published in late February. Both ran up most of their debts after the state sued Bluestone Coal: - Karla Coal Inc., which owes $214,911, mined for Bluestone between July 1996 and May 1998, according to the West Virginia Division of Environmental Protection.

- H & R Coal Co., which owes $75,872, mined between December 1996 and October 1997.

Thirteen other Bluestone contractors who ran up all their debts after January 1994 are: - RC Mining, $461,697.

- DK's Pride Inc., $136,181.

- Claudette Mining Inc., $105,798.

- Rayco Mining Co., $87,764.

- Bluewater Inc., $45,791.

- Blue Swan Energy Inc., $42,028.

- R & G Mining, $41,756.

- Cline Excavation Corp., $32,823.

- KenJean Inc., $23,830.

- Hard Hat Mining Inc., $17,564.

- R & M Mining, $10,897.

- Kristen Coal Inc., $10,148.

- Son Energy, $4,816.

Ed Burdette, executive director of the Workers' Compensation Fund, said Monday, "As far as his [Vieweg's] statement goes, I do not propose to add to his statement or detract from his statement. We have filed liens against contractors and against individuals. I think we have done well in cases like Karla Coal." Burdette said Workers' Comp "may hold Bluestone responsible for that debt." To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, call 348-5164.

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