Fight for Ohio Valley Coal Retirement Benefits Continues

WHEELING — More than 5,000 miners and family members will march in Washington, D.C. today in an effort to prevent thousands of United Mine Workers of America members from losing their pensions and health care.

On Wednesday, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., along with Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., urged passage of the Miners Protection Act and the Coal Healthcare and Pension Protection Act. They believe these measures will prevent 22,000 miners and family members from losing the benefits promised to them by their employers.

“This is not a bailout,” McKinley said. “There are going to be 120,000 people who are going to be hurting if this doesn’t pass.”

The 120,000 people to whom McKinley was referring are the current and future retirees that may be at risk of losing their pensions if Congress fails to act, the three Mountain State legislators believe.

The UMWA’s 1974 pension plan was 94-percent funded prior to 2008. Declining coal demand led to several large coal company bankruptcies, including Peabody Energy, Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources and Patriot Coal.

New technologies also allow coal companies to extract the mineral with fewer employees than once required, as the number of active miners paying into the union pension fund is minuscule compared to the number of retirees and their dependents collecting benefits.

However, McKinley and Capito placed blame for the problem squarely on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is the untold story of the consequences of (President Barack) Obama’s war on coal,” McKinley said. “In 2008, West Virginia had 143 coal mines. Today, we have 48.”

“We wouldn’t have coal bankruptcies,” Capito said when asked about the impact of the Obama administration’s policies.

Manchin focused less on the reason for the mine closures and more on the fact thousands of workers and family members are depending on a solution.

“If we can’t fulfill this commitment, shame on all of us. I don’t think there is a more important piece of legislation,” he said. “We need to keep our promise to the people who have given us the country we have.”

If the UMWA plan becomes insolvent, the beneficiaries face benefit cuts, while the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. will assume billions of dollars in new liabilities.

This organization is already responsible for many of the pension payments made to those who retired from companies that no longer exist, including Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. and Ormet Corp.

“It will take the PBGC fund into insolvency in one to three years,” McKinley said of placing the coal miner pensions under the auspices of the PBGC.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairs the Senate Finance Committee, which Capito said should soon consider the legislation.

“It is truly bipartisan legislation. We have pretty good assurances this will be taken up in the Finance Committee next week,” she said.

Responding to a question about whether potential tax revenue generated by oil and natural gas exploration could be used to fund the coal miner pensions, McKinley and Manchin said this would not be a good idea.

“If you go over to fracking, you are going to get involved in litigation,” McKinley said.

“If you think one is going to replace the other, it’s not,” Manchin said of the idea of natural gas replacing coal.

In a show of support for the legislation, UMWA officials expect 120 buses to bring miners and family members from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia to the nation’s capital today.

“These miners put in decades of back-breaking work in America’s coal mines to energize our nation,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “They put their lives and their health on the line every day to make sure that you and I can turn on our lights, power up our computers, heat and cool our homes.

“In return, they were promised retirement benefits by the government and their employers,” Roberts said.

“Those benefits are now at serious risk, and will begin running out at the end of the year. For many, that will force them to make cruel choices between buying life-saving medicine or buying food. Congress must act now to keep America’s promise to these miners.”

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