Bill would protect retired miners' benefits
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., are sponsoring federal legislation to protect pension and health benefits for thousands of retired miners who worked for Patriot Coal and Arch Coal.
Rockefeller wrote and introduced the legislation, and Manchin signed on as a co-sponsor.
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., introduced a companion bill in the House on Wednesday.
The Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act, or CARE Act, is similar to legislation Rockefeller and Rahall introduced last year.
Rockefeller said he was introducing the legislation on Wednesday after hearing "gripping accounts" during a congressional hearing in Beckley last week from miners who were losing lifetime pension and health benefits promised to their families.
"I heard stories that absolutely broke my heart," Rockefeller said in a news release. "Shirley Inman, who lives in Boone County, left a good-paying job in Chicago to come home to West Virginia to work in the mines.
"She did it because of the pension and health-care benefits she was promised. And now, after years of on-the-job injuries and a bout with cancer, that promise was broken. That's more than unfair. It's shameful. And I won't stand for it."
Growing financial problems with pension benefits could hurt nearly 47,000 miners in West Virginia and 107,000 miners across the country, according to Rahall and Rockefeller. They said these problems have two major sources:
* Today, only about 10,000 active mine workers are supporting pension and health-care benefits for nearly 95,000 retirees from the United Mine Workers' 1974 Pension Plan, which is already severely underfunded. Nearly 40,000 of these miners live in West Virginia.
The underfunding, coupled with financial problems the 1974 fund is facing because of the recent financial crisis, has put the fund on "a path to insolvency," Rahall said.
* An additional 12,000 retired miners, including nearly 7,000 West Virginia miners, face the possibility that Patriot Coal will try to avoid paying "legacy costs" after filing for bankruptcy last July.
Peabody Coal and Arch Coal moved most of their union miners working in Appalachia and southern Illinois to Patriot Coal after creating that company in 2007, Rahall pointed out.
Manchin said, "A strong mining industry begins with a strong commitment to our miners. They are the backbone behind decades of lighting our cities and heating our homes, and deserve nothing less than the best possible benefits and care."
The bill introduced Wednesday would would:
* Amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to transfer excess money from the Abandoned Mine Lands funds to the UMW's 1974 Pension Plan to prevent the insolvency of that plan.
* Make any retired coal miner who loses benefits because of the bankruptcy or insolvency of his or her employer eligible to collect benefits under the 1992 Coal Act. Rockefeller and Rahall played major roles in passing that act to preserve health benefits for retired and disabled miners and their families.
* Guarantee the full value of employer contributions under the UMWA Retiree Bonus Trust receive the same tax-exempt treatment as contributions to other pension plans, so that the full value of cash contributions from coal companies will go to retired miners who earned pension benefits under union contracts.
"This legislation is about standing up for coal miners, their widows and our coalfield communities," Rahall said. "After a lifetime of labor, they have earned the right to retire and live in dignity and I refuse to stand idly by as our miners see the benefits they earned over a lifetime eroded by forces beyond their control. It's not fair."
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-348-5164.