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Eastern violations follow coal CEO to Wyoming as mine transfers hit snags

In December, a brand new company called Blackjewel LLC announced plans to buy two Wyoming coal mines. They were considered the “crown jewels” of former coal giant Alpha Natural Resources, and Blackjewel said the mines held promise despite declines in the coal market.

By mid-January the fate of that future had hit a few snags.

Blackjewel’s owner, eastern coal CEO Jeff Hoops, owns mines across Appalachia. Some of them carry violations serious enough that regulators threatened to shut the mines down until they were resolved. The past issues have slowed down the transfer of ownership of the Wyoming mines in recent weeks and are causing some here to sound alarms about their potential new Powder River Basin neighbor.

Hoops said violations in three states in the central Appalachian coal belt are all minor and currently being addressed. His plans in Wyoming will cause little to no change on the ground for Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr.

“The same management that has ran these mines in Wyoming for years are in place,” Hoops said in an email Jan 24. “They will continue to operate at the high standards they always have as I expect nothing less.”


For a sale of coal mines to go through, Wyoming regulators have to sign off on two important transfers: the coal leases and the coal permits.

Pending federal violations can hold both of those processes. Though Blackjewel is a new company, its CEO is not new to coal, and violations travel with their owner, said Kyle Wendtland, administrator of the Land Quality Division of the Department of Environmental Quality.

On Jan. 16, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality informed Blackjewel via a letter that the department could not transfer the mine leases due to more than 20 outstanding violations listed for Hoop’s company in West Virginia, Revelation Energy.

Hoops said the matter was a misunderstanding. The company paid a $1,200 outstanding fine, he added. The leases in Wyoming were transferred to Blackjewel two days later.

Just as the company had put out its West Virginia fires, more popped up in Kentucky. State regulators threatened shutdown at its mines because of violations of four permits in that state, each outstanding.

The violations would stand in the way of Blackjewel’s next hurdle: obtaining the mining operations in Wyoming. A total of 13 outstanding violations were downgraded this week after Revelation challenged them, said John Mura, spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

“There’s a lot going on with Revelation right now,” he said.

Blackjewel had yet to file an application to transfer the permits of Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr as of Friday, said Keith Guille, a spokesman for the Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality.

When they do, the state still has to review it, ensure that environmental bonding is in place and locate no outstanding violations before those permits can be approved for transfer. As long as the violations on the federal list are not considered outstanding, the permits can go through, Guille said.

Wyoming regulators are aware of the history with Hoops’ mines, but Guille said: “We can’t do gut feelings.”

“We have to base it on the facts in front of us. If they meet all of the requirements … we move forward.”


Hoops is a lifelong coal player, he said, starting as a coal laborer at 17. In addition to Revelation and Blackjewel, Hoops was the founder of the Lexington Coal Company.

He vehemently defended his reputation in a series of emails with the Star-Tribune.

“We have over 700 permits in Central App, so these issues are common and are being addressed in a timely manner,” Hoops said in a Feb. 2 email. “Many just require submittal of permit modifications and are paper issues. There are no serious environmental issues.”

Eastern coal mines have more inspection days than Wyoming, he pointed out.

There are more opportunities for violations to come up when regulators are regularly on site. Wyoming’s state mine inspector visits the surface mines in Wyoming four times per year, twice by state inspectors and twice by federal regulators.

“No comparison in the level of scrutiny,” Hoops said.


Chad Cordell became acquainted with Hoops in West Virginia, when locals opposed a mine adjacent to the national forest south of Charleston. Cordell and other locals formed the Kanawha Forest Coalition in 2014 to fight the mountain top removal strip mine KD#2. The mine was opened anyway, owned by Keystone Industries and operated by Revelation Energy.

In the course of that campaign, Cordell said he became aware of a poor history of environmental compliance from Revelation and shared documents from August in which state regulators made a deal with the company to remedy repeated violations at another mine in West Virginia. The multiple violations and the failure to remedy them had tripped the repeated violator switch, a designation that precedes coal cessation orders.

Violations for Revelation in West Virginia include failure to maintain water quality in streams, damage outside the project boundaries and violation of discharge limits, Cordell said.

Hoops denied some of these claims, insisting that reclamation on one of the sites Cordell noted was nearly complete.

A request for clarification on the dispute from the West Virginia director of mining and reclamation, Harold Ward, was not returned by Friday afternoon.

Revelation has a reputation of neglect in Appalachia evident in the violation history, Cordell said.

“If his operations in Wyoming are anything like his operation in West Virginia, then Wyoming citizens and regulators have every reason to be wary,” he said.


Blackjewel is an unknown in Wyoming. Hoops registered the company with the state last summer. The sale of the Contura mines, where about 500 miners work, was announced in December. It was a virtually no-cash deal; Blackjewel would pick up the mines, allowing Contura to unload hefty reclamation obligations from their books.

The Blackjewel takeover would be the second change of ownership in two years for Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr. Contura was formed and acquired the mines after the bankruptcy of former owner Alpha Natural Resources. At the time, the two mines were considered the “crown jewels” of Alpha’s portfolio.

Blackjewel’s arrival was unexpected to many in Wyoming.

Coal production was improving following a steep two-year downturn when companies were struggling under heavy debt and reduced coal demand. That period led to bankruptcies and low production, sweeping nearly 1,000 Wyoming miners out of the workforce.

Still few appeared interested in new investment in thermal coal given projections of continued decline in coal use for electricity.

Hoops, the CEO of Blackjewel, has been involved in a number of deals picking up thermal assets. He said in an email that though U.S. thermal coal may be troubled, globally the thermal market is more robust.

“The rest of the world is moving to coal as demand is increasing every year,” he said. “We are primarily a (metallurgical) company in the east, and while not bullish on thermal coal, we are optimistic.”


Landowner advocates in the West say Blackjewel’s interest in thermal coal when many others are moving away from the sector raises red flags.

As Wyoming coal faces declining demand, smaller companies like Revelation will come into the Powder River Basin, said Jill Morrison, of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners advocacy group. A similar trend took place in the coal bed methane industry when natural gas prices dropped. Small firms moved in as big players cut their losses. Many of those firms did not succeed. The bust resulted in Wyoming’s orphan well crisis, one still being remediated today.

The results of this kind of trend can be staggering in terms of environmental fallout, Morrison said. The Blackjewel CEO’s history only makes the risk of this happening with coal more plausible.

“They come in. They get what they can out of it, and they walk away from it,” she said.

The Star Tribune reached out to both Kentucky and West Virginia regulators regarding Revelation Energy.

Kentucky regulators asked that the Star-Tribune submit a public records request on Revelation and the current cessation orders. Revelation has been forced to shut down operations for not remedying violations, a spokesman said. He declined to say how many times that has happened without a records request.

West Virginia requested an emailed set of questions, but their response was pending at press time.

Revelation has also experienced forced shut downs in West Virginia, including the Revelation operated KD#2 mine, which was permanently shuttered in 2016.

For Hoops, the pushback on his mining history is overblown. The company will provide financial assurances to cover eventual clean up costs at Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr this week, and the process of permit transfer is moving along at a reasonable pace, he said.

The criticism raised by advocates back east, he said, is “biased and uninformed.”

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune 

Keith McPheeters attends a news conference in early December at Casper City Hall where he was named the city's new police chief. McPheeters said he is taking recent complaints about how the police department handles sexual assault complaints seriously.

New Casper police chief discusses effort to improve victim services

Complaints about how the Casper Police Department handles sexual assault cases have not fallen on deaf ears, according to newly-appointed police chief Keith McPheeters.

“We recognize that we can do a better job of serving our victims,” he said Friday.

Sexual assault survivors started appearing at Casper City Council meetings more than a year ago with concerns about how their cases were handled. Among their criticisms: The prosecution process was too slow, obtaining updates was difficult and officers were overall too flippant about assault.

McPheeters said he’s been meeting with victims of sexual crimes to learn how the department can improve and that he hopes to continue that dialogue.

Police are not inherently cold people but officers tend to be rushed for time and therefore have a mission-oriented mindset, said McPheeters. While trying to gather all the facts as quickly as possible, officers sometimes forget victims’ needs.

But he said officers are currently being taught to change that approach.

Four officers attended a two-day “Start by Believing” training course in Phoenix in mid-January, according to Lt. Jeremy Tremel. The officers will share the knowledge they learned during workshops with the rest of the department.

“Start by Believing” programs were established by End Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit dedicated to improving criminal justice responses to sexual assault.

Tremel said police are also working to streamline the communication process between not only police and victims, but also with all departments involved with crime, such as the District Attorney’s office and the hospital. The lieutenant said it can be confusing for the victim when all departments aren’t on the same page.

The staff is supportive of the changes, added Tremel.

“Every one of us got into this profession because we enjoy helping people,” he said.

Some issues affecting victims, such as the tedious process required to obtain a restraining order, are not within the department’s authority to change, and would require action from state legislators, according to McPheeters.

Casper City Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay, who was elected in part for her advocacy for sexual assault survivors, said Friday that she was among those who met with the new chief and is hopeful positive changes are on the way.

But the councilwoman added that meaningful changes never happen overnight.

“I think the biggest thing is that the chief is keenly aware of the uphill battle that he has,” she said. “We — the community — need to recognize that we need to have patience and be of service as well.”

US investigators say deadly Amtrak train crash preventable

CAYCE, S.C. — Federal investigators are trying to figure out why a switch was in the wrong position, sending an Amtrak train into a freight train and killing a conductor and an engineer in South Carolina.

But they already know what could have prevented the wreck that injured more than 100 passengers — a GPS-based system called "positive train control" that knows the location of all trains and the positions of all switches in an area to prevent the kind of human error that can put two trains on the same track.

"It could have avoided this accident. That's what it's designed to do," said National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt, referring to technology that regulators have been demanding for decades with mixed success.

He said the passenger train hurtled down a side track near Cayce around 2:45 a.m. Sunday after a stop 10 miles north in Columbia because a switch was locked in place, diverting it from the main line. A crew on the freight train had moved the switch to drive it from one side track — where it unloaded 34 train cars of automobiles — to the side track where it was parked. The switch was padlocked as it was supposed to be, Sumwalt said.

The system that operates the train signals in the area was down, so CSX Corp. — the freight railroad operator which runs that stretch of track — was manually operating the signals. Sumwalt said it was too early to know if the signal was red to warn the Amtrak crew that the switch was not set to continue along the main train line.

Just hours after Sunday's crash, which also sent 116 of the 147 people on board the New York-to-Miami train to the hospital, Amtrak President Robert Anderson deferred to investigators about whether the system would have stopped this crash. "Theoretically, an operative PTC system would include switches in addition to signals, so it would cover both speed and switches," Anderson said.

The Silver Star was going an estimated 59 mph when it struck the freight train, Gov. Henry McMaster said. It was the middle of the night, and many people were jolted from sleep by the crash and forced into the cold.

"I thought that I was dead," said passenger Eric Larkin, of Pamlico County, North Carolina, who was dazed and limping after banging his knee.

Larkin said he was on his way to Florida when he was awakened. The train was shaking and jumping, and his seat broke loose, slamming him into the row in front of him, he said.

He said he heard screams and crying all around him as he tried to get out. Other passengers were bleeding.

The locomotives of both trains were left crumpled, the Amtrak engine on its side. One car in the middle of the Amtrak train was snapped in half, forming a V off to one side of the tracks.

Engineer Michael Kempf, 54, of Savannah, Georgia, and conductor Michael Cella, 36, of Orange Park, Florida, were killed, Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher said.

"Any time you have anything that happens like that, you expect more fatalities. But God blessed us, and we only had the two," Fisher said, her voice choked with emotion.

Of the 116 people taken to four hospitals, only about a half dozen were admitted. The rest had minor injuries such as cuts, bruises or whiplash, authorities said.

On Wednesday, a chartered Amtrak train carrying Republican members of Congress to a retreat slammed into a garbage truck in rural Virginia, killing one person in the truck and injuring six others.

And on Dec. 18, an Amtrak train ran off the rails along a curve during its inaugural run near Tacoma, Washington, killing three people and injuring dozens. It was going nearly 80 mph (128 kph), more than twice the speed limit.

With the recent string of crashes, "it's becoming almost like an epidemic for Amtrak," said Najmedin Meshkati, a University of Southern California engineering professor who has studied positive train control.

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Ranola Miller, house manager for the Historic Bishop House sits for a portrait Thursday morning.

Did Georgia go easy on a dangerous doctor? Casper case reveals troubled history

The same week that Dr. Larry Nassar’s abuse of young gymnasts made national headlines — with one victim after another coming forward to publicly describe his sexual abuse — a former Georgia doctor sat in a courtroom hundreds of miles away.

Like Nassar, Dr. Paul Harnetty was facing charges involving the way he touched patients during medical exams.

The ob-gyn was practicing in remote Casper, Wyoming, when a number of patients reported him to police. After hearing the accounts of six women, who described what Harnetty did when they were naked and vulnerable, the jury found the doctor guilty of sexually assaulting two of his patients. He was acquitted on six charges.

What the jury didn’t hear, however, was the long trail of allegations that surrounded Harnetty before he even arrived in Wyoming. It turns out that the ob-gyn, like the gymnastics doctor, escaped public discipline for years.

The Georgia Composite Medical Board heard plenty about Harnetty when it investigated him while he practiced in Georgia, according to records obtained by Wyoming investigators. More than a dozen nurses who had worked with the doctor for years told a board investigator the doctor routinely inserted his finger into the anuses of pregnant women while they were delivering babies — something that they did not see other doctors do. He also marked the charts of attractive patients with smiley faces and tried to make sure he was in line to deliver their babies.

That was just part of what came out.

But Georgia’s medical board never publicly disciplined Harnetty and kept its investigation strictly confidential. A Georgia hospital also refused to say why Harnetty gave up his hospital privileges in 2010.

Harnetty left Georgia with a clear public record, quickly gaining a license to practice in Wyoming in April 2012.

Once there, his behavior led to another series of complaints, and, by 2015, a criminal investigation. It also prompted a Georgia woman to report that in 2011, the doctor had sexually assaulted her.

“There had been red flags on this guy forever,” said Michael Blonigen, the district attorney in Wyoming whose office prosecuted Harnetty in last month’s jury trial. “I think it’s a fair question — how does it get this far without somebody saying, ‘Wait a minute. What’s with this guy?’”

The answer seems to be the broken system that shields and forgives sexually abusive doctors in all 50 states, as documented in 2016 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Doctors & Sex Abuse investigation.

Code of silence

If Wyoming investigators hadn’t taken a hard look at Harnetty’s past and raised the curtain on the allegations in Georgia, the public may never have known about the questions that dogged him over the years.

The Georgia Composite Medical Board, which licenses and disciplines doctors, won’t comment on what it knew about the doctor while he practiced in Warner Robins. If it disciplined him secretly — as it has with other doctors accused of sexual abuse and other misconduct — it won’t say. Nor will it say if it decided to take no action at all. Georgia law bars the board from discussing cases and allows it to discipline doctors in private, even when the allegations are serious and the board finds a complaint has merit.

On its website, Harnetty’s license is now simply listed as “lapsed.”

Medical board records show that the Georgia board licensed Harnetty in 2003, shortly after he completed medical residencies. He had graduate medical training first in Baltimore, then LasVegas, then Chicago, his board profile shows.

The board website doesn’t reveal why Harnetty trained in three locations. But Wyoming court documents say he had to do his residency training in more than one location “because of improprieties relating to members of the opposite sex.”

Within a few years, hospital nurses who worked with him started filing internal complaints alleging sexual harassment. The hospital required the doctor to apologize to nurses, records show.

In 2010, the Georgia medical board got a complaint from a nurse and opened a case. As its investigation proceeded, a dozen nurses reported they were troubled by what they saw Harnetty do to women during labor and delivery. Nurses also told a board investigator about Harnetty’s sexual harassment, inappropriate comments and touching.

In July 2010, Harnetty voluntarily gave up his privileges to practice at Houston Medical Center.

Exactly why he left isn’t clear, because the hospital said that information is confidential.

Casper police tried to find out in 2015, as they began their criminal investigation. But the hospital refused to reveal the facts. All peer review matters, the hospital said in a letter to Casper police, are confidential under Georgia law.

The AJC obtained a copy of the letter from the hospital through the Georgia Open Records Act.

The hospital also objected when the Wyoming prosecutor subpoenaed three hospital employees to testify at Harnetty’s trial. The hospital’s lawyer said the employees were not subject to the jurisdiction of the Wyoming court, according to letters obtained by the AJC.

After Harnetty left the hospital, the medical board heard more complaints.

Harnetty continued seeing pregnant women in a Georgia office and didn’t warn them he couldn’t deliver their babies. Some didn’t find out until they showed up at the hospital in labor, said Kelly Burke, a former district attorney in Houston County who represented patients who said Harnetty abandoned them.

Burke said Harnetty would actually tell patients during office visits that he would meet them at the hospital, knowing full well he wouldn’t.

A medical board investigator carefully looked into the allegations, Burke said, including conducting interviews with patients. “The board ultimately did nothing with it,” he said.

The board appeared to reason that all the patients had been able to deliver their babies with the help of other doctors, Burke said. Besides, by the time the board investigated that complaint, Harnetty had left Georgia, which also seemed to make the board less interested in pursuing a case, Burke said

“They were like, ‘Oh well, he’s gone,’” Burke said. “I thought that was pretty poor on the medical board’s part.”

Fresh start

Harnetty continued to work in Georgia without hospital privileges in 2011. But he was clearly eager for a fresh start, applying for licenses in other states.

Wyoming licensed him in April 2012. When it checked his history, if anything popped up on Harnetty, it wasn’t enough to stand in his way. He started practicing in Casper.

By 2015, Casper police started looking into sexual abuse allegations, and the Wyoming medical board started to investigate other complaints, according to documents obtained by the AJC. They included the doctor’s arrest and jailing in 2015 after drinking alcohol then banging a baseball bat on a neighbor’s door. On the night of the incident, the doctor was actually on call with the hospital to provide any needed emergency care and telephone consults.

After that incident, he underwent an evaluation and was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and alcohol abuse. The hospital granted his request for a medical leave.

While he was on leave, he kept seeing patients at his practice. He didn’t tell them he could not deliver babies, the board order says.

In February 2016, the Wyoming medical board filed a disciplinary complaint. That fall, the doctor voluntarily relinquished his license.

In January 2017, he was arrested and charged with 12 counts of sexual assault and one drug count.

Georgia patient steps forward

When news reports from Wyoming about Paul Harnetty’s arrest made their way to middle Georgia, one woman felt a rush of emotions. Harnetty had been her doctor, but she says he had also been her abuser.

“When other people came forward, I was so happy because I thought maybe they would believe me,” the woman told the AJC, which does not name victims of sexual assault unless they agree to be publicly identified.

The woman said when she was in her 20s, the doctor offered to do a procedure at no charge and told her to come to the office on a Saturday morning.

He gave her a prescription to take before coming in, and she described being woozy on the medications by the time she arrived. Then, she told the AJC, the doctor touched her inappropriately, used a massager on her and used his hands in an assault, while making vulgar comments. She said he then did the medical procedure, which she said was botched and had to later be corrected.

“He said, ‘Remember, nobody needs to know about today,’” the woman said.

Traumatized and confused, she was convinced no one would take her word over the doctor’s. He was an attractive, prestigious man with a medical degree. There were no witnesses. She did tell one of Harnetty’s nurses what had happened, but she said the nurse discouraged her from making a report.

In November, the woman called Casper police to tell them what had happened. “We found her credible,” said Blonigen, the district attorney.

The prosecution brought her allegations forward in court filings. But they were not used at trial, where evidence had to be focused on what happened to Wyoming patients.

However, Casper authorities told a Houston County, Georgia prosecutor about the allegations, wondering if a criminal case could be pursued here. Erikka Williams, chief assistant in the Houston DA’s office, said that based on the little information she had, too much time had passed for the case to be prosecuted.

The trauma of the assault continues to haunt the woman, who is now in her 30s, affecting everything from her personal relationships to her ability to see a doctor, she said. “He screwed up my entire life,” she said.

‘It’s a national problem’

In spite of Harnetty’s history in Georgia, the Wyoming prosecutor wasn’t surprised that the doctor was never publicly disciplined.

“It’s not just a Georgia problem,” Blonigen said. “I think it’s a national problem, with doctors and some of the other professions as well.”

He said he’s seen it repeatedly, beginning when he handled a doctor sex abuse case more than three decades ago, until today. “There is a lot of resistance in professional boards to believing their members are violating the law and particularly committing any sort of sexual misconduct,” he said.

Even when boards do find compelling evidence, he said, it’s not unusual for boards to drop their probes when doctors to agree to give up their licenses or leave the state. The AJC investigation found that medical boards often fail to notify police that a doctor may have committed a sex crime.

Blonigen said he also knew, from experience, that getting a doctor convicted can be tough. While the outrage nationally over sexual abuse is high at the moment, the doctor-patient relationship often requires someone to disrobe and submit to being touched. That makes it easy for a predator to abuse and often difficult for a victim to prove her case.

At the trial, while the prosecution argued the doctor misused his position of power for sexual gratificaiton, an expert testifying on Harnetty’s behalf said the touching at issue in the medical exams could be accidental or that patients misunderstood.

One of Harnetty’s attorneys, Don Fuller, said the doctor should have been charged under a statute that applies to doctors and allows more leeway if an exam was done for a reasonable medical purpose.

“We will go forward with the appeal,” Fuller said.

In Georgia, Harnetty’s case raises the tough question of whether the system’s silence or inaction permitted a dangerous doctor to find new victims.

Helen Robinson, with the YWCA of Greater Atlanta, has urged the medical board to do more to protect consumers from doctors who sexually abuse patients. “These people need to see consequences,” Robinson said. “It’s the only way to stop them from continuing to perpetrate over time.”

Perhaps the public furor over the Nassar case, combined with a national focus on sexual abuse by powerful men, will change the dynamics that have permitted abusive doctors to keep seeing patients, said Arthur Caplan, who founded the Division of Medical Ethics at NYU School of Medicine in New York City.

“There is some chance that pressure will build on medicine, as it did on the priesthood, to be more transparent and to be less oriented toward protecting the doctor,” he said. “There may be less willingness to give a second chance.”