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What Peabody's Bankruptcy Means To St. Louis


The largest coal company in America has filed for bankruptcy in federal court yesterday, not far from the St. Louis headquarters of Peabody Energy. It is the latest in a string of Chapter 11 filings by coal companies, including the St. Louis-based Arch Coal. St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman has this report on how the city is coping.

MARIA ALTMAN, BYLINE: I'm standing outside Peabody Energy's headquarters. It's a gleaming, 15-story building in downtown St. Louis. Just a few years ago, there were 500 Peabody Energy employees in this building. Today, that's down to about 350. Inside the lobby, there's the typical buzz of a corporate headquarters. Peabody Energy occupies half the floors here. Upstairs, I asked spokesman Vic Svec if it's possible the 133-year-old company might now have to move.

VIC SVEC: Oh, Peabody is a St. Louis landmark from our perspective, and we have no intention of leaving St. Louis or downtown.

ALTMAN: Peabody Energy is huge. It's responsible for 10 percent of the country's electricity. But like other coal companies, it's struggled in recent years as China's demand for metallurgical coal dried up and natural gas prices in the U.S. plummeted. The company lost $2 billion last year. In 2008, it traded at $85 a share. This week, it was $2. Svec says the company will use its Chapter 11 filing to tackle its massive debt and says that should not affect the company's workforce or its place in St. Louis. If true, that's good news for Jim Alexander, vice president of economic development at the St. Louis Regional Chamber.

JIM ALEXANDER: Well, they have a huge impact on the city in a number of different ways.

ALTMAN: Alexander says sure, it's the jobs and corporate giving, but even more important is Peabody's status as one of nine Fortune 500 companies in the St. Louis region.

ALEXANDER: As we go around the country and around the world and we make the business case for the region, something that really stands out is that we have companies like Peabody that are here that are world-class.

ALTMAN: Peabody Energy also has had a big presence in St. Louis's philanthropic community. The company has naming rights for a downtown concert venue, the Peabody Opera House, and has given to institutions like the St. Louis Zoo and the symphony. Amelia Bond, who heads up the St. Louis Community Foundation, says corporate giving is important here, and any slowdown from Peabody would hurt.

AMELIA BOND: We have definitely, as a community, felt the impact in recent years of consolidation, mergers and companies leaving our area.

ALTMAN: Others worry what will become of Peabody Energy's coal miners and retirees. Caitlin Lee is with an activist group that's often critical of Peabody. She cites what's occurred in several other coal company bankruptcies.

CAITLIN LEE: We've seen where workers' pensions and health care have gotten cut in the bankruptcy hearing. You know, that's people's lives and their health.

ALTMAN: But Peabody Energy officials insist that the company and its mines will keep operating as usual. Meanwhile, market analysts expect a fierce fight by creditors trying to get some of the more than $10 billion Peabody owes. For NPR News, I'm Maria Altman in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maria Altman
Altman came to St. Louis Public Radio from Dallas where she hosted All Things Considered and reported north Texas news at KERA. Altman also spent several years in Illinois: first in Chicago where she interned at WBEZ; then as the Morning Edition host at WSIU in Carbondale; and finally in Springfield, where she earned her graduate degree and covered the legislature for Illinois Public Radio.
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