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Retired Coal Miners Urge Lawmakers To Release Funds Needed For Failing Pension System

Roughly 100,000 retired coal miners across the U.S. are collecting pensions, but there isn’t enough money left in the system.

Some coal miners are planning to rally in Washington D.C. Thursday in an effort to convince lawmakers to release nearly $300 million in federal funds needed to shore up deleted pension programs. About 12,000 retired miners in Pennsylvania stand to benefit from it.

“If we don’t solve this problem this year there will be 19,000 people who lose their healthcare benefits in January,” said Phil Smith, spokesman for United Mine Workers of America. “Those people can’t wait. This has to happen and this has to get done now.”

The coal miners are relying on a 70-year-old presidential promise. In 1946, President Harry Truman brokered a deal to keep coal miners on the job that promised them pension and health care benefits forever. The promise was easy to keep while the coal mining industry was strong, but it has started to falter.

As coal companies began to close and declare bankruptcy, many of them were relieved of their pension obligations by bankruptcy courts and the system is starting to fail.

Bills in the U.S. House and Senate would give those pension programs additional money. In 2006, congress appropriated nearly $500 million for retired miners’ benefits – but only $200 million has been spent, Smith said.

“All we’re asking for is the authority to spend the rest,” Smith said.

The burden is so large that if it were simply shifted to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which usually rescues abandon pensions, it would bankrupt the agency, he said.

The legislation has become a hot button issue in many coal-producing states. Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, who is seeking reelection, blamed Obama for his “relentless war on coal.”

“Now, thousands of coal miner retirees in our state are in imminent danger of losing their health care benefits too,” Toomey said in a written statement. “While the Miners Protection Act is not perfect, I will vote in support of it in the Finance Committee later this month. We must move this bipartisan measure forward quickly to solve an urgent problem.”

Toomey’s opponent, Democrat Kate McGinty joined in his call for action.  

“We made a promise to America’s coal miners – that for all of the health and safety risks they took on the job, they would be secure in retirement,” said McGinty in a written statement.  Without action by Congress, mineworkers and their families will begin to lose the retirement benefits they deserve in a matter of months. We cannot allow that to happen.”

Smith said he is optimistic that the measure will be passed and the funds would have no impact on those currently employed in mining.