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Jay, Rahall forging bills to protect miner benefits

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.

Roberts said, "If nothing is done, we are looking at a situation where people are going to have to make cruel choices. Will they eat, or get their medicines? Will they pay the mortgage, or get the surgery they need?

"This is literally a matter of life and death for thousands of people in West Virginia and throughout the nation's coalfields.

"These miners lived up to their end of the bargain and went to work every day in the mines. They did nothing wrong, but now their health, their income, their security and their very lives are at risk."

In addition to holding employers accountable for their promises to union miners, Rockefeller's bill also would:

 

  • Amend the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer its funds, in excess of amounts needed to meet existing reclamation obligations under the Abandoned Mine Lands fund, into the 1974 pension plan to prevent insolvency;
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  • Make retired miners who lose benefits because of employer bankruptcies or insolvencies eligible for benefits under the 1992 Benefit Plan, created by the Coal Act Rockefeller introduced.
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  • Provide that employer contributions receive the same tax-exempt status as contributions to other pension plans. That will allow the full value of employer cash contributions to go to retirees.
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    The 1992 Coal Act preserved health benefits for 200,000 retired miners and their widows who had been promised those benefits by the federal government and by their employers. In 2006, Rockefeller sponsored additional legislation to protect those health-care plans from going broke.

    Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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