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As coal declines, 10,000 workers remain to support 120,000 retirees

Kentucky Congressman Speaks to Miners

Rep. Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican, speaks to a crowd of thousands of retired coal miners who came to Washington by the bus load to push lawmakers to vote on a bill that would save their pension and health care benefits.
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Rep. Andy Barr, a Kentucky Republican, speaks to a crowd of thousands of retired coal miners who came to Washington by the bus load to push lawmakers to vote on a bill that would save their pension and health care benefits.

Thousands of retired coal miners gathered near the U.S. Capitol in 96-degree weather Thursday to push Congress to save a pension fund many of them depend on that could go broke by year’s end.

Lawmakers have not reached a deal to salvage the United Mine Workers of America’s Health and Retirement Funds.

About 120,000 retired miners depend on the benefit, which averages $530 a month and keeps them from falling into poverty or onto welfare.

“There’s a lot of widows and miners in eastern Kentucky that depend on the UMWA pension for their health care,” said Joseph Hatfield of Pikeville, Kentucky, the president of the United Mine Workers Union’s Local 1511.

There’s a lot of widows and miners in eastern Kentucky that depend on the UMWA pension for their health care.

Joseph Hatfield, president, UMWA Local 1511

Hatfield was one of a group of retired miners who rented a van and drove about eight hours from eastern Kentucky to Washington to participate in the rally. Other miners came in buses from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Illinois, Ohio and Alabama.

Phil Smith, a union spokesman, said that at least 7,500 attended the rally and about 100 of them got arrested by U.S. Capitol Police when they sat down in a parking lot in protest.

A bipartisan group of senators proposes to rescue the pension fund with unused money from a federal mine reclamation fund, but they remain short of the 60 votes needed to move the bill forward.

A bipartisan group of senators proposes to rescue the pension fund with unused money from a federal mine reclamation fund, but they remain short of the 60 votes needed to move the bill forward.

The Senate version of the Miners Protection Act has the support of 46 Democrats and eight Republicans, according to its lead sponsor, Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.

In May, Manchin sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., asking for a vote on the bill by the end of the summer.

The Senate Finance Committee would have to approve the bill before it goes to the full Senate, and then the House of Representatives.

Many of the country’s biggest coal producers are in bankruptcy and may be able to shed their pension obligations under restructuring, putting pressure on the 70-year-old fund.

Many of the country’s biggest coal producers are in bankruptcy and may be able to shed their pension obligations under restructuring, putting pressure on the 70-year-old fund.

There are only 10,000 active workers to support 120,000 retirees, and 60 percent of the beneficiaries work for coal companies that are no longer in business. If Congress does not rescue the pension plan, the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. would assume billions of dollars in liabilities.

Retired miners could see their benefits cut, putting a strain on entire families.

“It affects the bottom line of everyone,” said Lynn Quintero of Madisonville, Kentucky, who attended the rally with her son and her father, Steven Jennings, a retired miner.

Rep. Mike Bost, an Illinois Republican, speaks to a crowd of thousands of retired coal miners who came to Washington by the bus load to push lawmakers to vote on a bill that would save their pension and health care benefits.

Jennings put in 28 years in the industry and receives about $600 a month.

“We were promised it, and it’s time now for them to come vote,” he said.

We were promised it, and it’s time now for them to come vote.

Steven Jennings, retired miner from Madisonville, Ky.

An abundance of cheap, natural gas produced through hydraulic fracturing has eroded coal's dominance in the nation's electricity production. Renewable energy, such as wind and solar, has become cheaper to produce, and the policies of President Barack Obama have promoted its development.

The coal industry and elected officials from coal-producing states have blamed Obama and Environmental Protection Agency regulations for coal’s decline.

But sitting in lawn chairs under a group of big trees with good shade, a group of retired miners from Pike County, Kentucky, said they weren’t satisfied with the level of support they were getting from McConnell, their state’s most powerful member of Congress.

The United Mine Workers of America endorsed McConnell’s 2014 opponent, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes. McConnell defeated Grimes to win a sixth Senate term, and a turn as the chamber’s majority leader.

In December, the Kentucky Republican removed the pension rescue provision from an omnibus spending bill Congress passed.

He hum-hollered around the bush without giving an answer.

Lloyd Hackney, retired miner from Pike County, Ky.

“Our own senator. That’s the major holdup, right there,” said Gene Hale, who worked in mining for 21 years. Hale is the recording secretary for the United Mine Workers of America Local 1511. The local has 250 members, all of them retired, Hale said.

Many of the retirees had written McConnell’s office asking for help.

“He hum-hollered around the bush without giving an answer,” said Lloyd Hackney, who worked in the mines for 30 years and also served in the Air Force.

“People from Kentucky need to remember the next time he runs,” said Teddy Coleman, of Phelps, Kentucky, who worked in the mines for 28 years.

The United Mine Workers of America endorsed Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell’s 2014 opponent, Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes.

Robert Steurer, a McConnell spokesman, said the senator met with retired mine workers Thursday to discuss the pension issue and had discussed it with them on multiple occasions.

“He continues to believe this issue deserves an open, transparent debate through regular order, and he appreciates the Senate Finance Committee’s commitment to take it seriously,” Steurer said. “He will continue to work with his colleagues on the path forward.”

Kentucky’s coal industry hit its lowest level of employment in 118 years in the first three months of this year, employing 6,900 workers as of April 1, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Coal production in Pike County alone is down 89 percent since 1996. The county was the state’s leading coal producer until 2012, when it was displaced by Union County in western Kentucky.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis

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