Last updated: July 17. 2013 1:35PM - 241 Views

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Martha Sparks


Civitas News Service


WASHINGTON, D.C. – On the heels of hearing gripping accounts last week in Beckley from retired coal miners who were promised lifetime pension and health care benefits for themselves and their families, Senator Jay Rockefeller today introduced legislation that would protect those benefits for thousands of retired miners whose livelihoods are in jeopardy. Senator Joe Manchin cosponsored the bill.


The Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act seeks to provide certainty and peace of mind to retirees and their families while holding employers accountable for the commitments they make to their workers. The bill builds on and strengthens similar legislation Rockefeller and U.S. Rep Nick Rahall introduced last Congress. The new measure comes soon after a roundtable discussion Rockefeller held in Beckley with retired coal miners in which he re-affirmed his commitment to preserving their promised benefits. Rahall and United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President Cecil Roberts also joined the discussion. Rahall today introduced companion legislation in the House, just as he did last Congress.


“Last month, I heard stories that absolutely broke my heart,” Rockefeller said. “One woman—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.”


“A strong mining industry begins with a strong commitment to our miners,” Senator Manchin said. “Our coal miners are some of the hardest working people in America, and they are proud to do the heavy lifting that keeps this country strong. They are the backbone behinds decades of lighting our cities and heating our homes, and deserve nothing less than the best possible benefits and care. This bill makes sure our brave coal miners receive the benefits they’ve been promised.”


Some retirees are facing uncertainty because the UMWA’s 1974 pension plan is severely underfunded and on the road to insolvency because of the 2008 financial crisis. The 1974 plan covers more than 100,000 mineworkers, including more than 35,000 West Virginians. If the plan becomes insolvent, retirees could see reductions in their monthly pension checks.


In addition, Patriot Coal, which was spun-off from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, has filed for bankruptcy and could shed its obligations to retirees. This means more than 12,000 retired miners and dependants, including nearly 7,000 West Virginians – the vast majority of whom actually worked for Peabody and Arch –would lose health benefits, and the 1974 pension plan would be further destabilized.


The Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act would:


• Amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer funds in excess of the amounts needed to meet existing obligations under the Abandoned Mine Land fund to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan to prevent its insolvency.


• Make Patriot’s union retirees and other union retirees who lose health care benefits following the bankruptcy or insolvency of his or her employer eligible for the 1992 Benefit Plan, which was established under the Coal Act of 1992 to provide health benefits to retired or disabled miners and their families. Companies that originally promised these benefits would be held accountable for the costs and, if needed, additional funding from the Abandoned Mine Land fund would be available.


• Provide that employer contributions under the UMWA Retiree Bonus Trust are not unfairly penalized by the tax code and receive the same tax-exempt treatment as contributions to other pension plans, allowing the full value of employer cash contributions to go to the retirees who earned them. This Retiree Bonus Trust provides modest supplemental pension payments to retired miners.


Rockefeller’s efforts through the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act build upon a longstanding record of steadfastly pursuing fairness for miners and their loved ones. He engineered passage of the 1992 Coal Act, which preserved health benefits for more than 100,000 retired miners and their widows who had been promised these benefits by both the federal government and their companies, after several companies unfairly stopped providing these benefits. Rockefeller again fought in 2006 to protect the UMWA health care plans by providing them with Abandoned Mine Land funds.


“I was so incredibly motivated by the retirees I heard from in Beckley and so many others who have reached out to me,” Rockefeller said. “Our coal miners work their entire lives, at risk of life and limb, to provide for their families and fuel our nation. We owe them nothing less than to make sure the pledge of lifetime benefits is preserved. It’s so simple: make a promise, keep your promise. That’s what I’m fighting for.”

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