Massey Energy -- the largest coal producer in central Appalachia and a major mountaintop removal operator -- must rehire 85 union miners who lost their jobs after the company took over a West Virginia mine in  2004.

That's according to a ruling handed down last week by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., where Massey's headquarters are located. The three-judge panel upheld a temporary ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin that found Massey had to rehire the United Mine Workers of America members who lost their jobs after the company bought the Mammoth complex in Kanawha County, W.V.

"We are pleased with the 4th Circuit's decision," UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in a statement. "We look forward to the day when miners who were illegally discriminated against get their rightful jobs back, and to all the miners at the Mammoth mine having the benefit and protection of working under a UMWA contract."

The Mammoth complex includes three underground mines and a coal preparation plant. Massey bought those operations, formerly known as the Cannelton mine, after the previous owner -- Horizon Natural Resources of Ashland, Ky. -- declared bankruptcy.

In November 2007, a National Labor Relations Administrative Law Judge ruled that Massey discriminated against employees when it took over Cannelton by refusing to hire them "on the basis of their membership in the predecessor's bargaining unit and their prounion sentiments."

As a remedy, the ALJ ordered Massey Energy to "notify the Union (UMWA) in writing that they recognize the Union as the exclusive representative of the bargaining unit employees" and that they "will bargain with the Union concerning terms and conditions of employment" at the Mammoth mine. The ALJ also ordered Massey to offer jobs to 85 former Cannelton employees who were refused employment because of their pro-union sentiments.

Massey appealed that decision to the full National Labor Relations Board. In the meantime, the NLRB got a temporary order from Judge Goodwin to rehire the miners, which Massey appealed to the 4th Circuit.

However, Goodwin's temporary order didn't completely implement the ALJ's decision, as it didn't require Massey to recognize the union or to implement the terms of employment that were in place at Cannelton at the time Massey bought it. Goodwin ordered only that Massey rehire the miners under the existing nonunion conditions at its mine.

"We fully expect the ALJ's decision to be upheld by the NLRB," Roberts said. "Not only will that mean the miners will get their rightful jobs back, but they will also receive back pay going back to the time Massey bought the mine and reopened it in 2004. And it will mean that, once again, the miners at that mine will be represented by the UMWA."

In 2005, West Virginia mine safety inspectors shut down a section of Massey's Mammoth mine for being improperly ventilated. At the time, the UMWA said that action was not surprising, given the company's "atrocious worker health and safety record."

"When this mine was operated by Horizon with a UMWA workforce, our miners had contractual protections that prevented them from having to work in these kinds of dangerous conditions," UMWA's Roberts said at the time. "This is not the case at mines operated by Massey Energy."

The fourth-largest U.S. coal company by revenue, Massey controls extensive reserves in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee -- about a third of all Central Appalachian reserves. It's been a major target of protests against mountaintop removal mining in recent years, with a number of civil disobedience actions involving trespassing and other minor charges at its operations in West Virginia.

The company first began operations as a coal brokerage under the name of A.T. Massey Coal Co. in Richmond, Va. in 1920 and got involved in mining in the 1940s. In the 1980s, it became a subsidiary of the Fluor Corp. of Texas but completed a reverse spin-off from Fluor in 2000 to become Massey Energy Co. Today it operates 35 underground mines and 12 surface mines in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky.

Massey is led by Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship, who the UMWA has accused of running his coal mines "like Chinese mines, with little regard for the lives of miners."

For copies of the rulings by the 4th Circuit and Judge Goodwin as well as additional background on the case, visit Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward's story at his Coal Tattoo blog.