MT. GAY, W.Va. — Addressing an audience of more than 100 people, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., led a discussion Wednesday regarding federal funding for health care benefits and pensions for coal miners.
Manchin’s office organized the roundtable at the Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. Coal miners and family members packed the lecture room, resulting in many having to stand in the back of the room and some even in the hallway.
Manchin and the audience talked about the Miners Protection Act, which is set to expire on April 30. Since 1946, coal miners with at least 20 years of experience have had a guarantee that their lifetime health care and retirement benefits would be covered by the federal government.
In December, Congress agreed to only extend the act up to the April 28 deadline. Money to fund the act has come from the Abandoned Mine Lands program.
Manchin said when lawmakers return from state and district work breaks next week, he is aiming at getting a long-term solution passed.
“It’s something that everyone’s been working on, fighting on and has been bipartisan,” he said.
Manchin is the sponsor of Senate Bill 175, which funds both health care and pensions benefits for coal miners using excess money from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund. The bill was sent to the Senate Finance Committee.
State Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, says his constituents involved in coal mining deserve the services they were promised.
“We got people in here that if you take away their retirement benefits, they’re destitute,” he said. “If you take away their medical, they’re only one visit from the hospital away from having to put their home up for sale.”
State Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, also attended the event.
Manchin was a signee of an April 17 letter to congressional leadership requesting a permanent solution. The other signees were U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Reps. David McKinley, R-W.Va.; Alex Mooney, R-W.Va.; Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va.; and Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America.
More than 22,000 coal miners and their widows would be affected if the act is not renewed.
Skeeter Lowe of Omar spent 33 years working in coal mines. Donning a camouflage UMWA shirt to the roundtable, he said he does not understand why Congress has not yet found a permanent solution.
“You’ve got (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell over there in Kentucky,” he said. “I don’t know what’s the matter with that man. He’s the one that’s holding it up.”
Roger Horton of Holden, who worked 40 years in coal mines, said McConnell is not the only cause of the current situation.
“Coal industry went through hellacious times and bankruptcies were rampant everywhere,” he said.
McConnell introduced Senate Bill 176 in January to fund the health care benefits for coal miners. Just like Manchin’s bill, it was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
During a March 16 town hall in South Charleston, Manchin said it was McConnell’s fault for the lack of a lasting solution.
Manchin said Wednesday members of the House of Representatives only want to extend the act by 20 months. A proposal he is aware of involves using up to $1.5 billion from the Abandoned Mine Lands program to cover only health care expenses.
Manchin called that proposal unacceptable, saying all Senate Democrats are against any partial fix and he has talked to between 12 and 15 Republicans who are willing to support a plan including pensions and health care.
“This shouldn’t be a Republican or Democrat issue,” he said. “This is an issue of fairness.”
Excess money from the mined lands fund, according to Manchin, could be put toward funding both health care and pensions without costing the federal government additional money.
Manchin also discussed the support the coal industry has received from President Donald Trump; the president repealed the Stream Protection Rule on waterway monitoring on Feb. 16, and signed an executive order on March 28 to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to review the Clean Power Plan, which regulates emissions at coal-fired power plants. Both regulations were passed under the Obama administration.
“(He’s) trying to find a balance between the economy and the environment,” he said. “We see coal stabilizing and having a better future now because it’s still a needed product.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal production increased over the last two quarters of 2016.
Manchin said the president needs to also comment publicly about the Miners Protection Act.
“He needs to get hot on the Twitter,” he joked to the crowd, referencing Trump’s frequent use of the social media platform.
But that is not the only problem facing the coal industry; employment fell by almost 80 percent between 1979 and 2016, and more energy is being produced nationwide at natural gas facilities because of lower prices as well as regulations to a lesser degree.
Tennessee Valley Authority CEO Bill Johnson told the Associated Press his organization will not reopen coal-fired power plants, saying the plants were closed because of costs, not regulations.
Manchin said while he does not think coal can rebound, coal use may not continually decline.
“Can it be stabilized?” he asked. “I think it can be.”
Senators will reconvene April 24, while members of the House of Representatives will reenter session on April 25.