The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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March 7, 2013

Bill seeks to protect miners' benefits

After meeting with retired coal miners last week in Beckley, Rep. Nick Rahall and Sen. Jay Rockefeller presented legislation Wednesday that would strengthen legal protections and funding for health care and pensions for retired coal workers and their families.

Nearly 40,000 retired West Virginia miners are facing the loss or significant reduction in health care and retirement benefits they earned. Rahall said currently there are only about 10,000 active mine workers supporting pension payments for nearly 95,000 retirees. This severe underfunding of the United Mine Workers of America’s 1974 pension plan, coupled with the stress the fund is experiencing as a result of the recent financial crisis, has placed it on a path to insolvency.

Additionally, many retired miners and their dependents are facing the possibility that Patriot Coal, a spin-off of Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, will shed its “legacy costs” in bankruptcy, which could result in 12,000 miners, including nearly 7,000 West Virginians and their family members, losing health benefits and further destabilizing the 1974 Pension Plan.

But the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee (CARE) Act seeks to hold employers accountable for the commitments they make to their workers. Rockefeller said the bill builds on and strengthens similar legislation that he and Rahall introduced in the last Congress.

“Every effort must be made to preserve health care benefits for our retired coal miners who worked so hard to produce the coal that powered this nation,” Rahall said. “This legislation that Sen. Rockefeller and I are introducing today keeps faith with the federal commitment that has been made to our coal miners. It ensures that those who participated in the noble but dangerous job of working underground to provide our energy security are secure in the retirement.”

Specifically, the CARE Act would:

n 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.

n Make any retiree who loses benefits following the bankruptcy or insolvency of his or her employer eligible for the 1992 Benefit Plan, which was established under the Coal Act and provides health benefits to retired or disabled miners and their families.

n Provide that employer contributions 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.

“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.”

— E-mail: wholdren@register-herald.com

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