U.S. senators have introduced a bipartisan bill that promises to protect the pensions for 92,000 retired coal miners and secure 13,000 miners' healthcare benefits.
The Bipartisan American Miners Act of 2019 would benefit retired workers from three coal companies all represented by the union United Mine Works of America: Mission Coal, Murray Energy, and Westmoreland Coal.
Colorado-based Westmoreland is the former owner of the Kemmerer coal mine in southwest Wyoming as well as the Rosebud mine in Montana that feeds the Colstrip plant, among other mines in the West. Murray Energy owns three idle mines in Utah.
The bill aims to shore up the 1974 Pension Plan, which was headed to insolvency due to the high number of recent coal bankruptcies and the 2008 financial crisis.
Phil Smith, UMWA's director of communications and government affairs, said workers have devoted their lives to generating cheap electricity.
"While they were doing that, they were signing collective bargaining agreements with their employers that promised them that they would have health care and a pension when they retired," Smith said. "They did their part. All we're trying to do is make sure that the promises that were made to them are kept."
Smith said healthcare benefits for Westmoreland retirees is set to run out at the end of 2019.
The chances of securing miners' benefits improves significantly with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell backing the bill after he resisted earlier attempts. But both Wyoming senators oppose the bill, and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon's skeptical.
The source of funds used to shore up the 1974 Pension Plan concerns all three. The bill would transfer money in excess of amounts needed to meet existing obligations under the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund to the Pension Plan to prevent insolvency.
"It's important to remember that AML funds are used in Wyoming for reclamation purposes, and we need to make sure those funds continue to be returned back to our state for their stated purpose," Gordon said in a statement.
"Senator Barrasso is opposed to any legislation that would result in certified states losing AML grants or divert from the AML trust fund," a statement from his office read.
Sen. Mike Enzi said in a statement that Wyoming has fought hard to receive the funds it's entitled to.
In response, UMWA's Phil Smith said the bill would have no impact on the appropriation given to Wyoming and other states.
Sen. Enzi's office noted that the coal miners' pension plan is not the only one headed towards insolvency in the next few years.
"Senator Enzi believes that bailing out just one of them would set a dangerous precedent where the federal government would be liable to bail out all the others. Instead of unfairly focusing on just one group, Congress should continue to look for smarter legislative solutions that would help protect all the workers whose pensions are at risk," the statement read.
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This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.