CHARLESTON, W.Va. A pension plan covering 120,000 United Mine Workers retirees is facing insolvency without action to resolve major funding problems, UMW officials and Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., warned Wednesday.
The pension plan lost 22 percent of its assets in 2008 and 2009 because of the financial crisis. It faces a dwindling number of coal operators paying into it, and is at risk of being labeled "seriously endangered" or "critical" by federal regulators when an analysis is completed in September.
Rahall, the House Natural Resources chairman, has proposed shifting money from the federal Abandoned Mine Land, or AML, program to shore up the union pension program, which covers about 38,000 West Virginians.
UMW President Cecil Roberts and the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, made up of most unionized coal operators, testified in favor of the legislation during a congressional hearing Wednesday morning.
"I think any reasonable observer would agree that coal miners work in harsh conditions that endanger their lives in many ways," Roberts told lawmakers. "They should not have to worry about the modest pensions that have been promised them after they retire."
But Rahall's bill ran into opposition from the Obama administration.
Department of Interior officials "recognize the importance of ensuring miners receive their pensions," but have "serious concerns" about the Rahall legislation.
"We believe the AML program should remain focused on reclaiming high priority abandoned coal mine sites, and further, this bill is inconsistent with the President's Budget and goals of ensuring greater fiscal responsibility during today's challenging economic times," said Alfred Whitehouse, chief of the reclamation division at Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.