Bill introduced in House to protect Patriot Coal retirees

United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil Roberts said July 10 that a new bill introduced in the U.S. House is a good step in saving the financially-distressed UMWA retire health-care system.

“I want to thank Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), along with Rep. David McKinley (R-W. Va.) and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W. Va.) for taking an important step toward securing the health care benefits of thousands of retirees who are affected by the Patriot Coal bankruptcy by introducing and co-sponsoring the Caring for Coal Miners Act,” Roberts said.

Patriot Coal, a major coal producer in West Virginia and western Kentucky, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in July 2012 and its court recently allowed it to slash UMWA benefits in an effort to stay financially afloat.

“These retired miners did all they were supposed to do to earn their health care benefits, putting their lives and health on the line every single day to power America,” Roberts said. “But now, they find the benefits they were promised, and that they earned, at risk through no fault of their own. This new legislation provides a way to meet the commitments that were made to these retirees.

Whitfield, who is from a major coal-producing state and is Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Power, said July 8 that this bill ensures continued health care coverage for miners in danger of losing their benefits resulting from the bankruptcy of Patriot Coal. 

“It is critical that we protect the health care benefits of the thousands of Kentucky miners who have worked hard their entire careers to earn those benefits,” said Whitfield. “That is why I have introduced the Caring for Coal Miners Act to ensure that the hardworking miners who took to the mines day in and day out don’t lose the health care that they have rightfully earned.”

Capito said: “The Caring for Coal Miners Act ensures continued health care coverage for the retirees who are in danger of losing their benefits. It is also an important step forward in protecting the benefits that were promised to hardworking miners in states like West Virginia and Kentucky.” 

Patriot’s bankruptcy may impact the health care benefits of roughly 1,500 people and their families in Whitfield’s district. Patriot claims that it will not be able to emerge from bankruptcy without significant changes to retiree health care obligations. As a result, the ankruptcy court recently ruled that Patriot Coal is authorized to transition retirees into a Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association (VEBA).

There is uncertainty regarding the solvency and availability of the VEBA due to the UMWA’s recent appeal of the court’s ruling. Whitfield’s legislation addresses this issue by making miners in danger of losing their health care benefits due to Patriot Coal’s bankruptcy eligible for the UMWA’s 1993 Benefit Plan.   

Whitfield acknowledged that there are challenges with retirees’ pensions, but he said the most immediate concern is the availability of health care benefits. “Protecting the health care benefits is just the first step in what may very well amount to a multifaceted process,” concluded Whitfield.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.