CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., announced Friday that he plans to introduce legislation, to be called the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act, to protect pension and lifetime health benefits for thousands of retired coal miners and their families.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., and United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts joined Rockefeller during a roundtable discussion in Beckley that stressed the need to preserve benefits earned by union miners.
John Noble, a spokesman for Rahall, said, "We will be looking to introduce a House companion bill in the near future."
Retired miners face problems today because the UMW 1974 Pension Plan is underfunded. The plan covers more than 100,000 coal miners, including 35,000 in West Virginia.
The 1974 fund "is severely underfunded and on the road to insolvency -- a result of the recent financial crisis and fewer contributions to the plan," stated a news release from Rockefeller's office.
The percentage of union miners has dropped dramatically, from about 95 percent of all West Virginia miners during the 1969 Black Lung Strike to about 25 percent today.
The number of working miners in West Virginia also dropped from 46,026 in 1974, when the UMW pension plan was negotiated, to 21,141 in 2012, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
Patriot Coal, a company spun off from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, has filed for bankruptcy, which could allow the companies to abandon all obligations to retired miners.
Peabody and Arch, which operate both union and nonunion mines, put most of their union mines under Patriot Coal.
As a result of Patriot's bankruptcy, more than 12,000 retired miners, including nearly 7,000 West Virginia miners and their dependents, could lose their health benefits. Most of these miners previously worked for Peabody and Arch.
Rockefeller said, "In West Virginia, a promise made is a promise kept. And when it comes to our coal miners -- who put their lives, limbs and lungs on the line under the promise of a secure future for them and their families -- there should never be any backing away from that pledge.
"This legislation is about human decency, it's about doing what's right and it's about having the backs of those who have ours deep underground," Rockefeller said.