Congress Can Help Retired Coal Workers Now

They earned it.

Photographer: Luke Sharett/Bloomberg

The politics of coal are controversial, but helping retired coal miners shouldn’t be. Congress can and should take action to ensure that thousands of former coal workers continue to receive their health benefits past the end of this year, and to keep their pension benefits secure.

QuickTake Coal Power

The health-care problem dates back to 2012, when Patriot Coal Corp. went bankrupt -- the first of many coal companies to do so. Patriot set aside money to temporarily cover its health-care obligations to retirees. (That fund now also includes workers who retired from Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Coal Inc., both of which filed for bankruptcy this year.) But the money wasn’t intended to last forever. On Jan. 1, 2017, it’s set to run out.

If it does, 12,500 retired coal workers will lose their health benefits.

Congress can prevent that by passing a bill, already approved by the Senate Finance Committee, that would transfer unused money from a separate program for cleaning up abandoned mines. The bill would also shore up the workers’ pension plan, which is otherwise projected to become insolvent in the next few years.

Congressional leaders want to narrow the bill, Bloomberg Government reports, by extending miners’ health benefits only and leaving pensions to be resolved later. That would be foolish: These retirees have been strung along enough, and the longer the government waits to close the pension gap, the more it will cost.

One might well ask, why should coal miners enjoy special guarantees for their benefits, when workers in many other industries face similar shortfalls? The answer is that coal is different. While its decline has been largely the result of cheaper natural gas, it has also been harmed by tightening federal regulations on coal-fired power plants, and an explicit government effort to wean the U.S. off coal.

QuickTake Climate Change

That effort is essential. Coal burning inflicts enormous damage on human health, the environment and the climate. But as the government has worked against the coal business, it has assumed an obligation to help the people most affected. This bill addresses that obligation, at no cost to taxpayers. It’s the least Congress can do.         

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.