The Kanawha County Commission on Thursday praised U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for their efforts to continue funding pension and health care benefits promised to coal miners represented by the United Mine Workers of America.
A bill that would tap into an existing pool of funds held by the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement’s Abandoned Mine Land program to keep the UMWA’s pension and health plans solvent was announced Wednesday by Capito and Manchin. The two West Virginia senators are cosponsoring the bill, along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Attempts to allocate the money needed to keep the funds afloat “were bottled up for two years and going nowhere” until Manchin and Capito engineered a bipartisan fix, said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, after a resolution praising the senators was read aloud and passed.
Without a new revenue source, the pension fund could have gone underwater sometime next year, following a series of major coal company bankruptcies during the past year, capped by Murray Energy’s Chapter 11 filing late last month, which listed $8 billion in pension and health care obligations.
The pension fund covers about 92,000 retired UMWA coal miners, while the health care fund covers about 13,000 active miners.
“We’re grateful to Senators Capito and Manchin for taking the lead on this bill,” said Commissioner Ben Salango, who credited the two West Virginia senators with persuading McConnell to arrange a vote on the bill.
Carper said that copies of the resolution will be sent to all county commissions in West Virginia, to encourage colleagues in other counties to follow their lead in voicing support for the bill.
Failing to pass the bill, Carper said, “would leave tens of thousands of miners and their families high and dry” and would “devastate the economy of West Virginia.”
In other developments during Thursday’s meeting, the commission heard a report from St. Albans Mayor Scott James on a planned Tax Increment Funding district designed to generate about $2 million for the development of the St. Albans Riverfront Park. The park, planned for a strip of Coal River shoreline abutting the downtown Loop formed by Kanawha Terrace and 6th Avenue, would include a canopied amphitheater, boat dock, kayak launch, event shelter, picnic shelter, outdoor dining area and trail.