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Bill could save coal millions

On Friday, the state Senate unanimously approved a Workers' Compensation Fund bill recommended by the agency's Performance Council a week earlier. Today, the House of Delegates Judiciary Committee will begin looking at the bill.As passed by the Senate, the bill makes it easier for injured workers to get "permanent total disability" benefits, by easing medical impairment standards. The West Virginia AFL-CIO backed the bill.The bill also creates a six-month "amnesty period" for employers who are delinquent in paying their compensation premiums.The amnesty period could help a handful of coal companies to save up to $100 million, because it eliminates interest and penalty payments for companies which are willing to pay back premiums.Currently, the Bureau of Employment Programs is suing more than 30 major coal companies, along with their subsidiaries and contract miners. These companies now owe about $200 million in delinquent premiums, interest and penalties.A major issue in these lawsuits, filed beginning in December 1996, is whether big coal companies are liable for the debts of contractors.Typically, big coal companies owned the coal their contractors mined, helped finance their contractors, and sold all the coal their contractors produced.The bill will not stop the lawsuits. But it would allow a company to negotiate secretly with Employment Programs Commissioner William Vieweg, even after a company loses a lawsuit or even after a company begins making payments under a settlement agreement approved by a court.For 10 years, Vieweg was a lawyer and executive of Island Creek Coal Co., a defendant in one of the lawsuits Workers' Comp filed. Gov. Cecil Underwood, another former Island Creek executive, named Vieweg to his job in February 1997.
None of the 30 lawsuits has come to trial. The suit against Bluestone Coal Co., owned by James Justice II of Beckley, was scheduled to begin in September before McDowell County Circuit Judge Booker Stephens.The West Virginia Coal Association delayed that lawsuit, and 15 others, by asking that they be transferred to federal district court in Beckley.For six months, U.S. District Judge David Faber has done nothing to rule on the coal association's legal motion.Vieweg has consistently expressed doubts as to whether major coal companies should be required to pay debts incurred by their contractors.The law allows coal companies and other employers to ask Vieweg for "a settlement of the amount of premium taxes, accrued interest and penalties and any award of attorney's fees" in lawsuits.Unlike open courtroom proceedings, the negotiations would take place privately.
After an employer reached an agreement with Vieweg, it would be subject to final approval from the nine-member Performance Council.But the exact terms of such agreements may never become public, under the law. 
To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, call 348-5164.
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