The miners of West Virginia and their families are the heart and soul of the Mountain State. Generations of our patriotic coal miners have spent their lives underground in order to provide our country with energy. They have endured countless years of backbreaking work and they are proud of the role they have played in building our nation into the greatest in the world, but they are at risk of being left behind and I refuse to let that happen. Right now, retired coal miners’ pensions, healthcare, and black lung disability benefits are on the chopping block. It is time for us to keep our promises to them and ensure that these benefits are not lost.
In January of this year, shortly after lawmakers returned to Washington from the holidays and the new Congress began, I immediately introduced the American Miners Act (S. 27) to make sure that our retired miners never lose the pensions, healthcare, and black lung benefits they deserve. Two weeks ago, I urged Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Ranking Member Ron Wyden (D-OR) to include permanent fixes for healthcare, pensions, and the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund in the tax extenders package because it is our responsibility to keep these promises.
The UMWA 1974 Pension Plan, started in 1946 under an Executive Order by President Harry S. Truman, constituted a unique federal guarantee to the health and welfare of our coal miners. This fund was well managed but because of the 2008 financial crisis and ongoing coal company bankruptcies, retired miners are now at risk of losing these hard-earned benefits. In the past two years, contributions into the plan have dropped by more than $100 million, leaving less than $25 million per year still coming into it. The average pension is $600 per month, modest by most standards, but still critical to the 87,000 beneficiaries who depend on it. If this plan collapses, beneficiaries and their dependents would revert to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). That would destroy the PBGC, leaving taxpayers on the hook to foot the bill instead of the companies that made these promises in the first place. If nothing changes, the plan will be insolvent as soon as 2022. It will happen even sooner if any more coal companies file for bankruptcy. The time to act is now.
Without action, coal company bankruptcies will continue to ravage our coal communities. Because of the 2018 bankruptcies, there are approximately 1,200 miners and their families who will be left without health care in the coming months. Every day that we fail to act is another day that our coal miners struggle to fill their lungs with air because of the devastation of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, caused by the inhalation of coal mine dust. We are seeing more and more severe cases of black lung every day, and we are now seeing it in younger miners who have spent less time in the mines. This is why I am urging lawmakers to reinstate and extend the coal excise tax contribution rate to $1.10 per ton of underground-mined coal and $0.55 per ton of surface-mined coal for 10 years. This tax is critical for supporting the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, on which more than 25,000 coal miners and their dependents rely for critical medical treatment and basic expenses.
We have heard from retired miners, their wives, and children. They have shared their fear of being forced to choose between putting food on the table and paying their medical bills. These men and women are not asking for handouts. They only want the benefits they earned through a lifetime of hard work. Colleagues on both sides of the aisle and in both houses of Congress have demonstrated their commitment to our miners. It is time for us to keep our end of the bargain, finish the job, and ensure that these benefits are secured and protected.
Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is the state’s senior senator.