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Coal state Democrats target black lung, miner pensions with new Senate bill

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Coal state Democrats target black lung, miner pensions with new Senate bill

Six Democratic U.S. senators representing coal states introduced a bill Jan. 3 to protect coal miners' pensions and healthcare benefits as well as raise and extend the coal excise tax that supports miners with black lung disease.

The American Miners Act of 2019 seeks to secure retired miners' pensions by amending the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to allow the transfer of excess funds in the Abandoned Mine Land fund to the United Mine Workers of America 1974 Pension Plan to keep it solvent, according to an explanation of the bill. The cap on those funds would be increased from $490 million to $750 million, protecting 87,000 current beneficiaries and 20,000 more who have not started pulling money from their pensions.

Without action, the pension plan is at risk of becoming insolvent by 2022 because employer contributions have decreased as a result of bankruptcies and consolidation in the struggling coal sector.

The legislation would also amend the Coal Act to include 2018 bankruptcies to protect the healthcare of miners affected by Westmoreland Coal Co. and Mission Coal Co. LLC's bankruptcies. Both coal producers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October 2018.

The proposal would be paid for in part by restoring an excise tax of $1.10 per ton of coal from underground mines and 55 cents per ton of surface-mined coal and extending that rate through 2028. The tax, which decreased by about 55% on Jan. 1, is the primary funding source for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides benefits to disabled miners with black lung disease as well as their eligible dependents and survivors.

In May 2018, researchers found that the most severe form of black lung disease has been increasing dramatically among coal workers in central Appalachia, a development that could put further strain on federal programs that provide healthcare for retired miners.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who is sponsoring the legislation, said in a release that Congress cannot delay securing miners' pensions and healthcare.

"Our coal miners made a commitment to provide our nation with the energy we needed to power our nation to prosperity," Manchin said. "They did so time and time again even when it risked their health and their lives. It is our turn now to keep our promise to them and ensure that we secure their hard-earned pensions and their promised healthcare and black lung benefits."

Ashley Burke, senior vice president of communications for the National Mining Association, said the organization strongly objects to "any effort to raise taxes on the industry, especially now, when it is working to stabilize after years of decline."

"The [current] tax is sufficient to cover monthly benefit costs for the fund," she said. "Raising the tax rates is not only unwarranted, but it would further disadvantage coal against competing energy sources, likely leading to additional coal job losses."

Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said this is the ninth consecutive year that lawmakers have introduced legislation to protect miners' pensions in Congress and he thinks the union is "closer than we've ever been" to getting it done, given the bipartisan acknowledgement of the issue.

The pension plan's insolvency could come even sooner than 2022 if the industry experiences further consolidation, more bankruptcies or another blow to the major employers, he said.

"We don't want to see the industry get in bad shape," Smith said. "We want to see it be robust and full and hire more people, but I think the long-term trends are that that's going to be difficult. Anything that upsets the apple cart in the near-term is going to have a pretty dramatic effect on our pension plans, so we need to get this taken care of now so that we don't have to worry about something like that happening in the future."

U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Doug Jones of Alabama, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, as well as Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both of Virginia, co-sponsored the bill.