Why 10,000 coal miners are descending on Washington

As many as 10,000 coal miners are expected to rally at the Capitol Thursday to push for the passage of a bill that would prevent the loss of health-care benefits for union miners. 

Joe Maiorana/AP/File
In this March 10, 2006 file photo, Ohio coal miners head into the mine for a shift inside the Hopedale Mine near Cadiz, Ohio.

Approximately 10,000 coal miners are expected to rally in front of the Capitol Thursday to push for the passage of a bill that would prevent the loss of health-care benefits for 23,000 coal miners and their families and shore up pension funds for as many as 120,000. 

The bill's sponsors, primarily two senators from West Virginia, say there is a moral obligation to pass the bill, as it fulfills an agreement made between the federal government and the United Mine Workers of America in 1946.

But the bill's mostly-Republican critics, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), say the legislation, which has been bottled up in Congress for more than a year, is too costly and could set a precedent for bailing out other multi-employer pension plans. Other opponents of the bill, including some coal county lawmakers, have also expressed concerns that the bill only includes members of the United Mine Workers of America, excluding non-union coal workers.

"If we can’t fulfill this commitment to people who basically built this country, then shame on all of us," said one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), during a panel discussion on the issue at the National Press Club in Washington on Wednesday. "I don’t know how any of us can go and face people who are losing everything."

As coal mining companies struggle to compete with natural gas while complying with recent environmental regulations, a number of companies have entered bankruptcy, while others have shed dues-paying union workers. Now, industry leaders and politicians are grappling with how to save the pensions and health care benefits of coal workers. 

The bill pushed by miners on Thursday "would allow excess funds from royalties paid by coal companies to reclaim and restore land disturbed by mining to be directed into providing health care for retired miners and shoring up their pension funds," the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. The bill is estimated to cost anywhere between $2 billion and $3 billion. 

The legislation has the support of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who came under fire earlier this year for her remark that as clean energy expands, "we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." The coal mining industry has become a focus of the upcoming presidential election, as Lucy Schouten reported for The Christian Science Monitor in May.

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