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CARE Act introduced to protect promises to coal miners

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A bill designed to protect coal miners from losing their pensions and health care was introduced in the House and Senate by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. today.

A similar bill is to be introduced in the House by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. Both lawmakers sat in on a recent public hearing on the bill in Beckley. At the meeting, coal miners past and present with Patriot Coal told the two veteran lawmakers that they fear the loss of their benefits.

"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."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. is a co-sponsor of the bill.

"A strong mining industry begins with a strong commitment to our miners," 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."

Rahall said thelegislation is "about standing up for coal miners, their widows, and our coalfield communities" after a lifetime of labor. 

"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 Senator 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

Patriot Coal is currently going through Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. The United Mine Workers of America have mounted a major campaign to protect health and retirement benefits, which are on the chopping block in bankruptcy negotiations.

The bill introduced is called the Coalfield Accountability and Reitred Employee Act, or CARE.

The bill would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer excess funds from the Abandoned Mine Land fund to the UMWA 1984 Pension Plan – which now faces potential insolvency. CARE would also make a retiree who loses benefits following a bankruptcy eligible for a benefit plan established under the Coal Act and make employer contributions exempt from taxes, just as other pension plans are currently treated.

The 1974 pension plan covers 100,000 mine workers, including more than 35,000 in West Virginia. That plan is currently under funded due to "the recent financial crisis and fewer contributions to the plan."

UMWA President Cecil Roberts thanked both lawmakers for introducing the bill.

"This vitally important legislation would go a long way toward resolving some of the most contentious issues facing those who live and work in America's coalfields," Roberts said. 

"Of most immediate concern, the CARE Act would mandate that any workers affected by an employer's bankruptcy would be placed into the 1992 (Coal Act) Benefit Plan, thereby keeping the signatory employers accountable. This would ensure that the promise of lifetime health care and pensions made in the White House almost 70 years ago is kept."

Patriot Coal has already made filings with the bankruptcy court that said the company would seek to eliminate the benefits of non-union employees. At the time, Patriot said it was trying to protect the jobs of current employees.

"The objective of our reorganization is to make Patriot a viable company and save 4,000 jobs," said Janine Orf, vice president of investor relations. "All of our employees and retirees are being asked to make sacrifices to help Patriot successfully emerge from bankruptcy.

Joe Brown mined coal for more than three decades at Peabody Energy, the company that spun off Patriot Coal, and struggles with pain he says came from working the mines. He spoke up at the public hearing on the CARE Act in Beckley.

"I want what the company promised me for spending them years down there mining coal for them," Brown said. "They promised health care and that's what I want. I don't want nothing extra.

"…I'm going to do everything in power that I can do to help keep this insurance. Whatever it takes, I'm willing to do."

Rockefeller said he was touched by the personal stories of the miners.

"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."