The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

May 31, 2013

Patriot ruling inspires Rahall’s bill

BECKLEY — A federal bankruptcy judge’s ruling that lets Patriot Coal impose deep cuts in health and pension benefits inspired Rep. Nick Rahall to accelerate his push Thursday for special legislation intended to guard other miners from future rollbacks.

Rahall said he fears the decision in St. Louis by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy Surratt-States would endanger benefits for thousands of mining families across Appalachia.

“Our coal miners earned, through sweat and sacrifice, the retirement and health care benefits they were promised,” Rahall, D-W.Va., said.

Political leaders across the state decried the judge’s decision, including state Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, who warned it would impose “a devastating effect” on thousands of workers in West Virginia.

“I am saddened to see how these men and women are being treated after giving so much of their lives to the company,” Kessler said, adding he hopes the ruling will be reversed on appeal.

Rahall called on Congress to enact a bill he has introduced with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also D-W.Va., known as the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act, or CARE, meant to honor the promise of lifetime health care and pensions made seven decades ago by the federal government and coal operators.

One point of the legislation would make any retiree losing benefits in the wake of an operator’s bankruptcy or insolvency eligible for the 1992 benefit plan, set up under the Coal Act.

Another provision would allow, through a change in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the transfer of funds in excess of amounts needed to meet existing obligations to the Abandoned Mine Land account to the 1974 pension plan of the United Mine Workers of America.

Rahall said a third key point in the legislation would assure that employer contributions aren’t unfairly penalized by the tax code and get the same tax-exempt treatment as contributions to other pension plans.

This, he explained, would allow the full value of employer cash contributions to go to retirees who earned them.

“After a lifetime of labor, our coal miners have earned the right to retire and live in dignity and we cannot stand by idly as promised benefits are taken away when they most need them,” Rahall said.

The Patriot case has been a long-running battle that prompted numerous protests in St. Louis by the UMWA that led to arrests. At one such demonstration, Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, an international member of the union and majority whip in the West Virginia House of Delegates, was among those arrested.

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