By Wendy Holdren
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller joined a group of retired coal mine workers Friday at the Raleigh County Public Library to discuss new legislation, the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act, which would protect the pension and lifetime health benefits of thousands of retired coal miners and their families.
Patriot Coal, a spin-off from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, is facing bankruptcy and could shed its obligations to retirees, which means over 12,000 retired miners, many of whom never even worked for Patriot, and their dependents would lose health benefits and the United Mine Workers of America’s 1974 pension plan would be further crippled.
Rockefeller said the pension plan, which covers more than 100,000 mine workers, is severely underfunded and on the road to insolvency — a result of the recent financial crisis and fewer contributions to the plan.
Rockefeller said to all the mine workers present at Friday’s discussion, “I owe so much to all of you.”
He said he understands their frustrations and added that trying to take away pensions and health benefits is “a crummy way of treating people.”
Rahall thanked Rockefeller for committing “a lifetime to coal miners.”
He also expressed his gratitude to the miners, who provide energy for our nation.
“Our coal miners have sacrificed lives, limbs and their everyday way of living. We in West Virginia, as hardworking as we are, know what a promise is.”
Both Rahall and Rockefeller pledged not to let the promise these coal companies have made to their retirees be forgotten.
Shirley Inman, a 69-year-old retired rock truck driver and breast cancer survivor, joined the discussion.
She reviewed her work and health history, shared photos with the lawmakers, and told them how she had been promised a health card and a pension for the rest of her life.
When she was finished, she said, “I guess I was pretty wound up, wasn’t I?”
UMWA President Cecil Roberts said she had every right to be wound up.
“What kind of society are we? Promises don’t seem to go very far these days.”
He said these coal companies have $1,000 an hour lawyers and $2 an hour morals.
Joe Brown, a miner for 33 years at Peabody, spoke about his medical issues and how he simply would not be able to afford it without his health benefits.
“I want what the company promised me. We deserve it. All of us, not just me. They worked for it, they earned it and they should be able to get it. We’re not going to give up.”
Terry Newsome said he had spent over 67,000 hours underground mining coal.
“I’ve had 20 injuries, including a hernia, a broken nose, a broken foot, back pain, arthritis. It’s brutal labor. I did it because of this promise. This is what we relied on. They made me lie to my wife because I told her when we retire, we’ll be secure.”
Ronald Ball attended the discussion, alongside his wife of 32 years, Vicki, who he met at one of his mining jobs.
He talked about the severe back injury he sustained from falling on a rail track because the site did not have a necessary tool.
“The only thing they cared about was getting their trains loaded.”
Roberts said he wished everyone had the compassion that Rahall and Rockefeller do when it comes to mine legislation and mine safety.
“This is a life and death situation for many of these families.”
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