Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quietly gave its tentative approval to a significant new mountaintop removal mining permit in Logan County, W.Va.
EPA signed off on the permit for Arch Coal Inc.’s Coal-Mac subsidiary and its Pine Creek Surface Mine, southwest of Omar. A key approval document is posted online here, but EPA hasn’t made any sort of public announcement about the action.
Obama administration officials apparently agreed to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to issue the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit for the 760-acre mine after officials from Coal-Mac made several changes EPA believes improved the project:
— Impacts to 22 percent of the stream resources were avoided, with the company agreeing to haul 4.1 million tons of waste rock and dirt to an adjacent mine site;
— The company agreed to raise the deck of the valley fills 100 feet beyond what is required by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s “approximate original contour’ formula.
According to EPA:
Where practicable, the applicant has maximized the amount of spoil returned to the mine bench and minimized the amount of excess spoil that must be disposed of in streams.
… The applicant evaluated alternatives to valley fill construction and has incorporated best management practices that are expected to reduce the likelihood of increased loading of total dissolved solids (TDS) and specific conductivity levels to minimize water quality impacts and protect against significant degradation of downstream aquatic resources.
U.S. Senate and House leaders late this morning unveiled proposed new mine safety legislation in response to the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.
Sponsors of the proposal explained their goals this way:
Despite progress over the last several decades, mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. On April 5, 2010, a massive explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, killing 29 miners and injuring others. This disaster has prompted a public outcry about this and other mines’ safety records and the systemic barriers that prevented recurring safety problems from being addressed.
Leading members of the House and Senate released an outline of legislative concepts to address the serious concerns raised. These reforms would give operators incentives to comply with the law, empower workers to speak up about safety concerns, and ensure that MSHA has the tools it needs to hold unsafe mines accountable to improve their safety.
— Making Mines with Serious and Repeated Violations Safe – Criteria for ‘pattern of violations’ sanctions would be revamped to ensure that the nation’s most dangerous mine operations improve safety dramatically.
— Ensuring Irresponsible Operators are Held Accountable – Maximum criminal and civil penalties would be increased and operators would be required to pay penalties in a timely manner.
— Giving MSHA Better Enforcement Tools – MSHA would be given the authority to subpoena documents and testimony. The agency could seek a court order to close a mine when there is a continuing threat to the health and safety of miners. MSHA could require more training of miners in unsafe mines. Increased rock dusting would be required to prevent coal dust explosions.
— Protecting Miners Who Speak out on Unsafe Conditions – Miners would be granted the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. Protections for workers who speak out about unsafe conditions would be strengthened, and miners would not lose pay for safety-related closures. In addition, miners would receive protections so they can speak freely during investigations.
— Increasing MSHA’s Accountability – The legislative outline provides for an independent investigation of the most serious accidents. It would require that mine personnel are well-qualified, and ensure that inspections are comprehensive and well-targeted. Additionally, it requires pre-shift reviews of mine conditions and communication to ensure that appropriate safety information is transmitted.
— Guaranteeing Basic Protections in All Other Workplaces – To ensure that all workplaces have basic protections, whistleblower protections would be strengthened, criminal and civil penalties would be increased, and hazard abatement would be sped up. In addition, victims of accidents and their family members would be provided greater rights during investigations and enforcement actions.
Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said;
In mines around the country and in other workplaces as well, worker safety has not been a priority. Bad actors have put profits ahead of people. As a consequence, workers have lost vital protections, suffered significant injuries and, in too many cases, lost their lives. We are determined to put sharper teeth in our workplace safety laws and to step up federal enforcement. We look forward to working with members on both sides of the aisle to find bipartisan solutions for workers. These policy ideals start that dialogue.
House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said:
The Upper Big Branch tragedy highlighted significant problems in our nation’s miner safety laws and need substantial reform. Mine operators who callously and repeatedly put their workers in danger must be held accountable. It is clear that current law does not provide sufficient protections to miners who go underground every day. Today, we take the first step to ensure that the health and safety of workers are put ahead of production and profit.
Here’s a statement issued this morning by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis:
Few people ever really earn the right to be called a legend; however, Sen. Robert Byrd earned it every day. For decades, the people of the Mountain State knew they had a true friend and someone who would fight for them and their families.
I had the pleasure of working with Sen. Byrd on issues that impacted our nation’s coal miners and their families. As the son of a coal miner, Sen. Byrd understood that we have a moral obligation to protect the men and women who go underground every day to dig the coal that fuels our economy, and to ensure that those men and women return safely to their loved ones after every shift.
He was a compassionate and dedicated public servant who defended the Constitution every day in the Senate. His leadership, patriotism and wisdom will be missed.
Here’s a speech Sen. Robert C. Byrd gave after the Sago and Aracoma mine disasters of 2006:
Madam President, while the Senate was in recess, the State of West Virginia lost 14 proud sons.
On January 2, 13 hard-working, God-fearing men were simply earning their daily bread at the Sago coal mine in Upshur County, WV, when an explosion killed 1 man and trapped 12 others 260 feet below its surface. For 41 long hours, these men waited for help. They waited, they waited, they waited, and they prayed. They wrote farewell messages to their loved ones. How gripping. They waited as the air they breathed gave out and their lungs filled with toxic gases.
Above the ground, we all prayed for a miracle such as we had enjoyed with the nine miners who had been trapped at the mine at Quecreek, PA, in 2002 and were found alive. But this time, there was only one miracle. My wife Erma and I, like many others in my great State of West Virginia, continue to pray for the recovery of the sole survivor of the Sago explosion, Mr. Randal McCloy, Jr. But tragically, there were no miracles for Tom Anderson, Alva Bennett, Jim Bennett, Jerry Groves, George “Junior” Hammer, Terry Helms, Jesse Jones, David Lewis, Martin Toler, Jr., Fred Ware, Jr., Jackie Weaver, and Marshall Winans. Once again, a small coal-mining town in West Virginia went into deep mourning, and an entire State wept with them.
And then, incredibly, 17 days later, a mine fire broke out on a conveyor belt at the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 in Logan County, WV, trapping two miners underground. In shock and disbelief, the State once again fell to its knees and prayed and pleaded for a miracle. Forty hours later, we learned that two more miners–Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield–had perished. Another small coal-mining town in West Virginia went into deep mourning, and again an entire State wept with them.
Once again, the national media rushed in to report the disaster to the world. Once again, editorials filled newspapers across the country decrying the dangers of mining coal, denouncing the callousness of coal companies, and questioning the commitment of State and Federal officials to mine safety.
Madam President, as a child of the Appalachian coalfields, as the son of a West Virginia coal miner, as a U.S. Senator representing one of the most important coal-producing States in the Nation, let me say I have seen it all before. Yes, I have seen it all before.
First, the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next. After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and the safety of America’s coal miners, the men and women upon whom the Nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next disaster. But not this time.
This is from Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s autobiography, Child of the Appalachian Coalfields:
During my first term in the legislature, I introduced a bill to liberalize workmen’s compensation payments. Having grown up in a coal miner’s home, I knew the needs of miners, and I knew the time had come to increase workmen’s compensation benefits. Under the provisions of my bill, widows were to be given a ten-dollar increase per month, making the total forty dollars instead of thirty. Dependent children in 1947 were receiving ten dollars monthly until they reached the age of sixteen.
Under the bill which I introduced, there would be an extension of two years in their payments: They would, therefore, be paid until they became eighteen. In other words, there would be no increase in the monthly amount paid to these children, but they would benefit from the payments two years longer. It was a very moderate bill, but even with such a moderate increase in payments to widows and the extension of two additional years of benefits to dependent children, such legislation faced strong opposition from coal companies and other industries.
I spent several hours preparing my speech on the Workmen’s Compensation Bill, and I then memorized it. The issue here was the human element versus the dollar, I said. “To me, the dollar is secondary; human misery and suffering, and the welfare of helpless, dependent children come first.”
I went on to point out that during the quarter-century since the last increase in payments to widows, industry had made “great gains and increasing profits.” This was all well and good, I said, and I was glad to see a healthy and growing industry, but “when a man makes the supreme investment in laying down his life, then I believe industry owes his wife and dependent children a fair living in return for the priceless treasure they have lost forever.”
Still pursuing the theme, I said, “A man’s stature is not measured by his wealth or his social standing, but by the depth of his character and the kindness shown to others out of his heart. He is measured by the stand he takes on the great moral questions of the day, and to be always found on the right side is within itself a noble achievement.” In saying so, I realized that many of the more seasoned legislators were listening attentively, perhaps our of respect for my newness to the legislative battlefield. While a few might have regarded my words as presumptuous or even grandiloquent, I knew, nevertheless, that my cause was right and just.
Then, referring to the Bible and its teachings, I said, “On this question, I think of the Master who as a young man walked the hills of Judea two thousand years ago; who always went about doing good; healing the lame and the afflicted, restoring sight to the blind, feeding the multitude, and raising the dead to life — whose heart was ever moved with pity and filled with sympathy and compassion for those in extreme distress and suffering. The Master did not think of the cost in monetary terms, but always and only of the cost in human misery.”
Then I mused openly as to what Christ’s words might be to those delegates who sat around me. “My friends, search your hearts and your conscience for the right. Life is but a fleeting moment in the annals of time and eternity, and as we go out, we must go before the great Bar of Justice. We must answer for our actions here and we shall hear the Great Eternal Judge say, ‘the liberal soul shall be made fat; and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.'”
… My bill passed the House that night, but it never became law …
Early this afternoon, Maynard’s campaign issued an e-mail alert, urging media members to turn out for a FACES of Coal event in Bluefield and:
Come and join us as we try to stop the war on coal!
For the record, FACES of Coal issued this statement today about Sen. Byrd:
Senator Byrd was a tireless worker for the people of West Virginia, and his contributions to our great state and this country are truly inspirational. He was a man who was raised in the coal fields and was a tireless worker in trying to make miners safer, often asking the country to appreciate West Virginia’s greatest natural resources, coal and the coal miner. The news of Senator Byrd’s passing brings sadness to all West Virginians. The Senator’s service to this great state and our nation will always be appreciated and remembered.
And Massey Energy put out a statement saying:
The members of Massey Energy along with other West Virginians send our condolences and sympathies to the family, friends, staff and constituents of Senator Robert Byrd. He will be remembered as a tenured and dedicated public servant.
WVDEP’s contract with the Charleston firm of Bailey & Glasser took effect May 1, Huffman told me this afternoon. For now, the firm is consulting with WVDEP on these issues, but it would also handle any litigation if the state decides such a suit is necessary.
Huffman explained the need for outside lawyers this way:
We’re just getting in over our heads, and I just don’t have the staff to handle that.
Massey Energy just issued a news release announcing that the company has filed a legal challenge to certain U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration practices in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster investigation.
According to the release, Massey wants to be able to take its own photographs, perform its own electronic mapping and do its own coal-dust analysis — all things that MSHA has apparently ordered the company not to do.
Shane Harvey, Massey’s general counsel, said:
It is troubling that MSHA would seek to limit the ability of investigators to locate and analyze important evidence that is essential in determining the cause of the Upper Big Branch mine accident. MSHA’s actions imply that the agency does not want a thorough, objective and inclusive inquiry.
According to the news release:
The legal filing states, “MSHA’s effort to prevent a more comprehensive inspection of the mine is particularly troubling in light of the fact that the agency itself is under scrutiny for demanding questionable mine ventilation modifications mere weeks prior to the accident. Because the law plainly does not permit MSHA to make [Massey] a bystander at an investigation of its own mine, [Massey] has respectfully requested that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission modify the Section 103(k) order so that the investigation of the Upper Big Branch accident can move forward in a credible fashion consistent with law.”
Here is a statement issued today by United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts:
The United Mine Workers and all coal-mining families and communities have lost their best friend in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
A son of the West Virginia mountains who married into a coal-mining family, Sen. Byrd dedicated his entire life to making things better for coal miners everywhere. He was a champion of the 1969 Coal Miner Health and Safety Act, and convinced President Nixon not to veto the bill. In the 40 years prior to its passage, 32,000 miners lost their lives on the job. In the 40 years since, that number stands at slightly more than 3,200. One could argue that thanks to Sen. Byrd’s efforts, 29,000 lives were saved.
Since that time, Sen. Byrd consistently fought for additional protections for miners. He led the charge to secure the 1977 revisions to the 1969 Act. He fought in 1992 to continue health care benefits for mining families, and many times since then to secure funding, so that today, 100,000 UMWA members are still getting benefits. He relentlessly pushed for answers in the Aracoma and Sago disasters to prevent these tragedies from occurring again. And he fought for enhanced Black Lung benefits his entire life.
Despite failing health, Sen. Byrd fought to the very end to improve miners’ lives. Last spring, his amendments to the health care bill restored the process of miners getting – and their widows keeping – black lung benefits for those miners who have been totally disabled by this terrible disease. And just last month, he grilled Massey CEO Don Blankenship during a Senate hearing he led into the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.
All of us from the coalfields have lost our best friend in Robert C. Byrd. We extend our deepest sympathy to his family and friends.
The news Sunday that Sen. Robert C. Byrd was in the hospital in very serious condition prompted some of the standard political speculation about Gov. Joe Manchin’s possible designs on Sen. Byrd’s seat, including from Salon.com and from FiveThirtyEight.
Manchin says his decision will be an important one because of the effects climate change and mining debates in Congress and at the federal level will have on the state.
An important decision? Certainly. But Coal Tattoo readers know well that Gov. Manchin and Sen. Byrd didn’t exactly see eye to eye on climate change, mountaintop removal, or how our state should navigate the hurdles facing the future of our coal industry.
I asked Sara Payne, Manchin’s communications director, if the governor would have a litmus test for appointing a temporary successor to Byrd … would he pick only someone whose views on these matters mirror those of the governor?
The governor is not even thinking about an appointment right now … that is the furthest thing from his mind at this time. His focus is on honoring the senator and his contributions.
With that being said, it is my understanding that the governor was just speaking in general about how there are a lot of important things coming through Washington that directly relate to our state, and mining and climate are simply some examples.
What does one say about someone who rose up from such humble beginnings to become one of the most powerful men in the country and the longest serving Senator in U.S. history?
Well, perhaps the most complimentary thing is to say that Sen. Robert C. Byrd was willing to grow, and change, and modify his views and positions as science, economics and so many other facts made it unwise not to do so.
President Obama nailed it, with a statement just issued, when he said this of our Sen. Byrd:
He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time.
And among the areas in which Sen. Byrd had the courage to change was his position and public statements regarding West Virginia’s powerful coal industry.
These head-in-the-cloud individuals peddle dreams of an idyllic life among old-growth trees, but they seem ignorant of the fact that, without the mines, jobs will disappear, tables will go bare, schools will not have the revenue to teach our children, towns will not have the income to provide even basic services.
About a year ago, Sen. Byrd sent his staff into the coalfields, on a fact-finding mission, and last December came out with his major statement, urging the coal industry to “Embrace the Future.” Among his most important points? That change was coming to the West Virginia coalfields, regardless of what happens with cap-and-trade legislation and mountaintop removal restrictions:
The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.
The greatest threats to the future of coal do not come from possible constraints on mountaintop removal mining or other environmental regulations, but rather from rigid mindsets, depleting coal reserves, and the declining demand for coal as more power plants begin shifting to biomass and natural gas as a way to reduce emissions.
And, Sen. Byrd told us:
Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.
Later, after 29 miners died in the Upper Big Branch Mining Disaster, Sen. Byrd renewed his call, demanding that the coal industry respect miners, coalfield communities, and the land from which coal is mined:
The sovereignty of West Virginia must also be respected. The monolithic power of industry should never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities. Our coal mining communities do not have to be marked by a lack of economic diversity and development that can potentially squelch the voice of the people. People living in coal communities deserve to have a free hand in managing their own local affairs and public policies without undue political pressure to submit to the desires of industry.
The old chestnut that “coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource” deserves revision. I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such.
The facts of the matter are clear. Senator Robert Byrd has run his last campaign. It’s very unlikely he will be here in 5 years or 10 years. West Virginia will still be mining coal in that time. Heck, Senator Byrd may not be here in 5 months much less any longer.
West Virginians will mourn now, and political leaders are going to be saying a lot nice things about the legendary Sen. Byrd. You have to wonder if any of them are going to go back and take a look at things that Sen. Byrd was saying about our state’s future … things like this:
There is no doubt that the West Virginia coal industry and many West Virginia workers have been dealt a difficult hand over the past ten years, and are indeed facing some uncertainty about their futures.
… As I have said before, to deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out” of the future. But we have also allowed ourselves to ignore other realities. It is a simple fact that the costs of producing and consuming Central Appalachian coal continue to rise rapidly. Older coal-fired powerplants are being closed down, and they appear unlikely to be replaced by new coal plants unless we very soon adopt several major changes in federal energy policy. In 2009, American power companies generated less of their electricity from coal than they have at any other time in recent memory. In the last month alone, two major power companies have reportedly announced that they will idle or permanently close over a dozen coal-fired powerplant units that have consumed millions of tons of West Virginia coal in recent years. Moreover, an even larger portion of America’s aging fleet of coal-fired powerplants could be at risk of being permanently closed in the coming years–and the ability to sell coal in those markets could be lost for an indefinite period, if there is no new Federal energy policy to support the construction of new coal plants.
Some companies may feel that it is helpful for Congress to go on denouncing a new energy policy that makes it once more attractive to build new coal plants. But those companies are taking this opportunity to invest in natural gas, or other types of investments. They are not thinking about fighting for the longer term future of coal jobs and other jobs in West Virginia. I am. In the meantime, what happens to the miners, other workers, local governments, and many West Virginia citizens during the course of further delay on a new energy bill? They continue to be laid off, and to struggle with insufficient revenue, and to remain frustrated about their uncertain future.
… For the sake of West Virginia’s best interests, and the vital longer-term interests of our Nation and our world, the Senate must now move promptly to take responsible, decisive, and effective action on a moderate but major new energy policy.
Before two collapses killed nine men in 2007, Murray Energy Corp. flaunted safe mining practices in the Crandall Canyon coal mine, purposefully hid the level of risks there from federal regulators and ignored the mine-safety agency’s orders, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by a half-dozen insurance companies.
The insurers for Intermountain Power Agency (IPA), co-owners of the Emery County mine along with a Murray Energy subsidiary, are seeking compensation for expensive mining equipment sealed in the mine after underground rescue efforts were abandoned because the mine was too dangerous.
So far, though, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main aren’t saying anything beyond their prepared statement, which tried to blame the whole thing on a previous administration — despite the fact that the March 2009 orders to only review 1 mine per field office and no more than 3 mines per district for POV orders came after President Obama took office.
In its preliminary report, the Inspector General said MSHA made this decision based on “resource limitations.” So far, neither the IG nor MSHA nor the DOL has explained exactly what that meant.
There weren’t any major indications from the Obama administration of any resource limitations. In fact, top administration officials repeatedly said the exact opposite — to the public, the press, the mining community and Congress.
Twenty-nine-year-old Bobby L. Smith of Vicco, Ky., has become the 39th U.S. coal miner to die on the job in 2010. The Associated Press reports:
A Kentucky coal miner has died from injuries received in an underground accident in eastern Kentucky.
Ricki Gardenhire, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing, said the fatality occurred Thursday at James River Coal’s Leeco 68 mine at Jeff in Perry County near Hazard. Details of the accident were not released.
Gardenhire identified the miner as 29-year-old Bobby L. Smith of Vicco. He was taken to Appalachian Regional Hospital in Hazard, where he was pronounced dead.
State inspectors were notified of the accident about 1:30 p.m. EDT.
According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, Smith, a continuous miner operator, was crushed between the mine wall and his mining machine.
Updated: MSHA’s preliminary report is online here.
A new review by the Department of Labor Inspector General has found that federal mine safety regulators may have improperly excluded coal mines from reviews for potential “pattern of violation” actions that would have stepped up enforcement at their mines.
House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., has posted a summary of the IG report here, and the basic thrust is that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration appears to have not examined potential patterns of violations at some mines because of “resource limitations.”
The IG summary comments:
We are very concerned about mines removed for reasons other than appropriate consideration of the health and safety at those mines. MSHA is not subjecting these mines to the enhanced oversight that accompanies potential POV status, yet it does not have evidence that they reduced their rate of significant and substantial violations. As a result, miners may be subjected to increased safety risks.
Miller reacted to the preliminary IG findings this way:
The Inspector General’s alert raises very serious concerns that go to the heart of health and safety of mine workers.
Chairman Miller, along with Reps. Nick Rahall of West Virginia and Lynn Woolsey of California and Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia asked the IG to examine this situation after the MSHA computer glitch was revealed. Miller had already released a list of “dangerous mines” that avoided a POV warning letter or order because of their increased appeals of MSHA citations that could form the basis for such an action.
Lawyers for the coal giant filed suit yesterday in federal court in Washington, D.C., alleging that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has violated the company’s due process rights by arbitrarily refusing to allow Massey to use ventilation systems of its choosing at its mines.
I’ve posted a copy of the suit here. Massey issued a news release about the filing, and MSHA responded today with this statement:
MSHA received multiple press inquiries about the lawsuit yesterday, and we are currently reviewing the document. While we find the timing and substance of some of the arguments curious, we generally do not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
Among other things, the Massey suit complains that federal law provides no “dispute-resolution mechanism” in the event that an mine operator and MSHA cannot agree on the terms of a ventilation plan.
Interestingly, an Illinois situation that Massey previously pointed to in its PR battle with MSHA explains that there is such a mechanism, and explains that previous rulings have pretty much left the issue of what an appropriate ventilation plan looks like up to MSHA:
The Commission has held that, “absent bad faith or arbitrary action, the Secretary retains the discretion to insist upon the inclusion of specific provisions as a condition of the plan’s approval.”
The suit also focuses on Massey’s dispute with MSHA over the use of “scrubbers” in underground mines, so it might be worth giving our previous Gazette story on this subject a read.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts and West Virginia Congressman Nick J. Rahall warned this morning that a crucial UMWA pension plan — covering 120,000 working and retired miners — is at risk of insolvency without some kind of fix.
The fix proposed by Rahall and the union has the support of the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, but it received a cold reception today from the Obama administration during a congressional hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee that Rahall chairs.
You can read all the testimony here, but I’ll try to summarize the situation as best I can, and provide more detail and context than my post last night alerting readers to today’s hearing.
First, the UMWA was a bit upset with that post last evening, so let’s allow Cecil Roberts some space here to explain why he believes Rahall’s H.R. 5479 is so important, to protect pension benefits provided to UMWA members under what is known as the 1974 Plan:
The retirees and surviving spouses who depend on the 1974 Pension Plan live in all 50 states, but the majority of them still reside in the coal mining states of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Illinois, Virginia, Alabama, Ohio and Indiana. Many of the retirees are elderly with nearly 40 percent of the retired population over 75 years of age and about 17 percent of the population over 85 years of age. The 1974 Plan provides them with modest but crucial income. The average pension benefit for a retired miner currently receiving benefits from the 1974 Pension Plan is $590 per month and for a surviving spouse the average benefit is about $304 per month.
In addition, noting the recent mine disasters at Upper Big Branch, Sago and Crandall Canyon, as well as the thousands of deaths from black lung disease, Roberts told lawmakers:
I think any reasonable observer would agree that coal miners work in harsh conditions that endanger their lives in many ways. They should not have to worry about the modest pensions that have been promised them after they retire.
OK … before we move to the details of the legislation, a little history is necessary …
When it passed the 1977 federal strip mining law, Congress created a tax on coal production, meant to raise funds to reclaim coal-mine sites that were abandoned prior to the law’s requirement that operators clean up after they’re done mining. Folks who have followed the issue know that the Abandoned Mine Land program hasn’t quite lived up to its promise, at least in part because Congress and the Office of Surface Mining have allowed money to be diverted from its primary purpose — cleaning up dangerous coal-mining sites — to other things. We outlined this whole problem a few years ago in a Gazette series, and this story summarizes it pretty clearly.