I’m proud to have worked as a coal miner for nearly 30 years, and to have been part of the workforce that kept America’s lights on. But mining has taken its toll on me.
Mining is dangerous work, and breathing coal dust underground for so long isn’t good for the body.
My mining-related medical history runs about a mile long: I’ve had treatments for black lung, for a bad back, a failed kidney — you name it.
I knew the health risks when I signed up for the job. Fourth-generation miners like me have seen family and friends struggle with health problems from a lifetime of working with coal.
Miners are nearly four times as likely to incur fatal and severe injuries on the job than the average U.S. worker. A recent report shows that rates of black lung among miners may be 10 times higher than government estimates.
But when I first went underground in 1975, I had a promise from the government and from the coal companies: help us power the country, and we’ll help you with bills. I was told I’d receive the best health care money could buy and a comfortable pension as thanks for this dangerous work when I retired.
I foresaw the upcoming doctor’s visits — even as I hoped they wouldn’t happen — and I knew how to keep myself safe on the job.
What I couldn’t foresee was that my employers and the government would someday turn their backs on me, my family and my fellow miners, just when we need them most.
I’m one of 23,000 retired miners at risk of losing our health care and pension coverage this year.
In 1946, the government and the United Mine Workers of America established a fund for miners supplied with money from the coal companies. Thousands of spouses, widows, children and other dependents also rely on this fund.
But without action from Congress by the end of this month, those of us who were promised care will be left out in the cold.
As coal has taken an economic downturn, the fund is in jeopardy. Coal companies who declared bankruptcy between 2012 and 2015 no longer have to pay into the fund, depleting most of its revenue source. Over three dozen companies declared bankruptcy during that time period, including three of the four top coal producers in the country.
There’s a lot of talk about what’s responsible for the decline of coal. But it’s clear that not only is the government ignoring miners, but that coal companies are breaking promises to take care of employees who were so instrumental to their success.
Even as they declared bankruptcy, these giant companies somehow found the money to take care of the folks at the top. Peabody is planning to pay out $12 million in bonuses for only six executives as part of its bankruptcy plan. That $12 million would go a long way toward paying off miner health care bills — but I somehow doubt that we’ll be seeing any of that cash here.
Donald Trump promised to help miners and bring back the coal industry. Many miners elected him to steer the government back to working for us, keeping our health care and pensions safe and creating jobs in our communities.
Unfortunately, most of the Trump administration’s moves so far seem like they’ll only be helping coal executives. Financial analysts say prospects for coal jobs are slim, even with Trump’s attempts to roll back regulations. Washington’s strategies to “help” the industry may end up padding executive pockets instead of creating jobs.
If Washington really wanted to help miners, ensuring we have health care seems like a no-brainer. But Congress may ignore the policies that would improve our lives. In December, the government nearly shut down over disagreements about funding our health care. As we inch closer to the end of this month, our future is in danger again.
If Congress doesn’t act by April 28, I — and thousands of other miners — will be left without health care or pensions. Miners like me knew the risks of our profession, but we were counting on being taken care of in exchange for all our years of work.
The coal industry and the government has pulled the rug out from under us.
Now, it’s Congress’s responsibility to step up and keep the promise that was made to me and thousands of others.
Chuck Nelson is a former coal miner from Sylvester, W.Va., a member of United Mine Workers, chairman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and vice president of Keepers of the Mountains Foundation.