Washington, D.C. 24 April 2017
Like a bad check, Congress bounced back to Capital City this week from their Easter vacation. Numero uno on their priority list is keeping the federal government open for business—at least a little longer.
This week’s funding story, however, is not just about money. It is about promises made, but still to be kept.
While politicians fiddle, citizens are again being left to suffer--perhaps none more than the nearly 23,000 coal miners in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere, facing the loss of healthcare benefits.
Coal industry employees and their families are provided retirement, disability and survivors benefits through the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan, which is vouchsafed by the federally funded Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). On April 30th—two days after the current funding resolution lapses and the 101st day of the Trump administration—the fund will be insolvent should Congress fail to act.
With this article, I am asking the sustainable energy and environmental communities to demand of President Trump and their congressional delegations their doing what’s right by those suffering from black lung and other diseases caused by exposure to coal and rock dust.
We--supporters of sustainability--have consistently placed human health effects near the top of our list of grievances with fossil fuels. Do we walk away from those now suffering these illnesses and facing shortened lives--often tethered to oxygen tanks.? Or, do we stand with them, in the pursuit of environmental justice?
President Trump and congressional leaders like Senator McConnell (R-KY) and Speaker Ryan (R-WI) have promised to stop the war on coal and to put miners back to work. But what of the miners who’ve done their time and are no longer able to work? Are they to be ignored—cast off as collateral damage?
What will happen to those they’ve promised to return to the mines? Are they to expect relaxed regulations that will increase their exposure to carcinogens and lead more quickly to their contracting black lung and other diseases?
The incidence of black lung, by any historical measure, is at an unprecedented high. Over the past three years, 644 cases have been diagnosed. A number likely lower than the actual incidence, as miners are frightened of being fired should their companies become aware of their illness.
These are not men and women of faint heart nor necessarily of advanced age:
Mackie Branham, 39, of Elkhorn Creek, Ky., spent 19 years mining coal until he was
diagnosed with complicated black lung. He ran monstrous mining machines and drilled
bolts into mine roofs…He worked double shifts… seven-day weeks every chance he had.
His gallbladder was removed one day and he says he was back at work the next.
He took two days…after knee surgery, before working a 12-hour shift drilling bolts…severe breathing
problems [finally] forced him to leave work in March…he struggles for every breath now.
'My dad has got it. Everybody… has got it…. The more I talk, the more I get out of breath. It's
like I ain't got no capacity.’
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) sent out letters on March 1st informing the 23,000 recipients the Health and Retirement Fund would soon be insolvent and warning their benefits would lapse in 60 days. This was not the first time such letters were mailed. Similar notices were received by these same miners just four months earlier; and, in the year before, 16,000 were mailed.
Clean energy and environmental advocates may oppose the uncontrolled extraction and combustion of coal; but, I know of none who would consider themselves an enemy of the miners.
Our communities have always stood in support of the health and welfare of society—and each of its members. It is the essence of who we are. As President Trump and Republican Congressional leaders appear unwilling to keep their promises of protection, it is up to us and to all fair-minded Americans to remind then of their obligations to the miners.
Theirs’s is a story of broken promises and betrayal.
Unwilling To Fund The Health and Retirement Fund
Traditionally, the coal companies have borne responsibility for funding the miners’ health and pension funds. Because of declining market demand, coal companies have been claiming bankruptcy in greater numbers. These filings, however, are not fully reflective of the situation.
Because of lost revenues—particularly during the Great Recession—miners have been willing to accept lower wage packages in order to help the mines stay open and the benefits fund stay solvent over their lifetimes.
It seemed a fair bargain, a fine illustration of a win/win situation. Now, however, companies are seeking the protection of bankruptcy courts--asking to be relieved of their health and pension fund obligations. The courts are complying. Now it is only a win for the mine owners.
Yet A Willingness To Pay For Politicians
The proffered financial problems have not prevented mine owners, executives and the companies themselves from making political contributions during the 2016 elections. The day before it sent layoff notices to 4,400 miners, Murray Energy’s PAC gave $100,000 to Trump’s joint fundraising committee. Bob Murray, the company’s owner, invested $300,000 of his own money in Trump’s run for the roses. Are these the actions of insolvents?
Murray Energy handed a total of: $1.5 million to political candidates, party committees and outside groups over the 2016 cycle, a record high for the company and tops for the industry. It was not alone in its largesse: (Source)
The willingness of coal companies to support politicians, before honoring their health and pension promises, is the more reprehensible given the game of musical bankruptcies played by several of them.
Through a series of setups, Arch, Peabody and Patriot managed to pass the benefits of the hapless miners back and forth between the companies and in advance of their bankruptcies. Once declared bankrupt—legally not morally—they ceased being responsible for the fate of the miners, who once worked for them and were now facing the loss of coverage.
Arch Coal, having cleared $5 billion of its debt off its books through bankruptcy, was one of several companies given the Restructuring Deal of the Year award. The honor was presented to them at the annual Distressed Investing Summit, hosted by The M&A Advisor and held at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.
A Case of Double Jeopardy
Retired miners in need of their healthcare benefits are between a lump of coal and a really hard place. Without a federal funds transfer into the Multiemployer Health Benefit Plan, they will be forced to rely on the only other federal assistance available.
A senior policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation had this to say about the situation: it's unfair that miners won't receive the benefits they counted on, but that's not the government's job to fix. These people are going to have to go to Medicare, [Medicaid] and the Affordable Care Act…tough. (emphasis mine) Given efforts by Trump and the many Republican members of Congress to repeal Obamacare—whether it's replaced or not—the dismay, anger and fear of 23,000 miners is understandable.
Few in Congress and the White House seem willing to use the budget resolution that is to re-fund the federal government as the vehicle with which to solve permanently the healthcare problem faced by retired mine workers. A stand-alone bill has been introduced.
Where Things Stand: The Miners Protection Act and The Next Budget Resolution
There is growing bi-partisan support for the Miners Protection Act of 2017 (S. 175/H.R. 179). Within Congress and the states. Leading senate supporters in addition to Manchin D-WV) include: Moore Capito (R-WV); Warner (D-VA); Brown (D-OH), Portman; Heitkamp (D-ND); Casey (D-PA); McCaskill (D-MO); Kaine (D-VA); and Donnelly (D-IN).
House members in addition to the bill’s chief sponsor McKinley (R-WV) include: Doyle (D-PA); Bost (R-IL); Fudge D-OH); Johnson (R-OH); Cook (R-CA); Welch (D-VT); Bucsh (R-IN); and, Lujan (D-NM). Joining them are Governors Wolf (D-PA) and Justice (D-WV).
Senate Majority Leader McConnell has introduced his own bill known as the HELP for Coal Miners Health Care Act (S. 176). Although similar, McConnell’s bill points a legislative finger of blame at environmental regulation, preventing most Democrats from joining on as co-sponsors. The Manchin/McKinley bill stands the greatest chance of passage.
The Miners Protection Act requires the federal government and the coal operators to honor their obligation of lifetime pensions and health benefits for the miners. The pension issue is more problematic—given the greater number of miners involved.
The issues are separable, however. It is possible for Congress and the President to provide the funds necessary to continue miners’ health benefits beyond the April 30th deadline, without addressing the matter of pensions.
Should the final spending resolution presented to Congress for passage and the President for signature not include funding for miners’ healthcare, Manchin and other senators have expressed a willingness to block its passage and to trigger a shutdown of the federal government.
The entire question of a government shutdown is yet to be settled. Trump and members of his senior staff, e.g. Mulvaney, are currently taking a hard line on the border wall--demanding its initial funding. Whether this is real or a bluff is impossible to know as of this writing. As the funding deadline draws near, there will be a lot of dealmaking going on. The miners and their supporters are not likely to have such leverage again.
The time to make a stand is now. Even at the risk of a government closure, I urge all in the clean energy and sustainable environment communities to support the 23,000 miners facing the loss of their healthcare benefits, in violation of the promises made them by President Trump and Republican Congressional leaders.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.