Politicians around the country have shed a lot of crocodile tears for coal miners and their families in recent years. I suspect that many of these have been theatrical in nature.
Now there are a couple of chances to find out who’s for real and who isn’t. Two bills have been introduced in Congress that could make a real difference for coalfield communities.
One is Senate Bill 27, the American Miners Act of 2019, introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and supported by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.
It’s basically about keeping promises.
The bill would modify the federal Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act of 1977 to allow funds to be transferred to the 1974 United Mine Workers Pension Plan, which was originally created by President Harry Truman in 1946 to ensure health and pension benefits to the miners who put themselves at risk for decades to build the country’s industrial might and raise the standard of living. It would impose no new costs to taxpayers.
The UMWA pension fund has taken hits over the years. One of these was the most recent recession, which hit hard around 10 years ago. Even worse has been the steady stream of corporate bankruptcies.
(Sad to say but, these days, it seems like it’s easier for coal companies to dodge paying promised benefits than it is for an ordinary worker to get relief from student loan debt.)
According to Manchin, “In the past two years, contributions into the plan have dropped by more than $100 million, leaving less than $25 million per year still coming into it. The average pension is $600 per month, modest by most standards, but still critical to the 87,000 beneficiaries who depend on it.”
Capito told WV MetroNews: “These retirees are not getting rich on their pension plans and they are not taking lavish expenditures. Without this monthly benefit, many of them would be living on the edge of poverty, if they are not already.”
The bill would also prop up funding for black lung benefits for miners and their families by extending the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund tax for 10 years. This step is urgently needed because the problem is getting worse.
According to a 2018 NPR news report, “One in five working coal miners in central Appalachia who have worked at least 25 years now suffer from the coal miners’ disease black lung ... . It’s the highest rate in a quarter-century and indicates that the disease continues to afflict more miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.”
In 2017, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that black lung has killed more than 76,000 people since 1968. Unfortunately, we can only expect those numbers to increase in the future. In 2018, more than 25,000 miners and dependents received benefits from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
Another bipartisan measure that could benefit coalfield communities is the RECLAIM Act (House Resolution 2156), which stands for “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More.”
RECLAIM would release money from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Fund to help communities clean up some of the damage caused by mining—and its decline. It could also help put former miners and other dislocated workers back to work.
Both of West Virginia’s senators have supported the principles of the RECLAIM Act. A version of the bill cleared the House Natural Resources Committee on May 1.
These bills obviously aren’t a total fix to undo the harm done to workers, communities and environments over the last 100 or so years, but they would be steps in the right direction. And a promise is a promise.