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Coal miners

Many retired coal miners are suffering a slow and painful death from black lung and other chronic illnesses, while the ailing coal industry still pays its executives multi-million-dollar bonuses. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

'We're Dying Like Flies': Sick, Retired Coal Miners Betrayed by GOP Senators

Right-wing senators are blocking bill that would provide pensions for retired workers suffering from years spent in coal mines

Nika Knight Beauchamp

"The country must not turn its back on coal miners," right-wing Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell told constituents in eastern Kentucky last week.

Yet coal miners—many "facing a slow death" from black lung and other deadly illnesses from a lifetime of mining coal—say that McConnell and other Senate Republicans are doing exactly that, the Associated Press reports.

McConnell has been repeatedly blocking a bill that would provide a pension plan and health benefits to about 13,000 retired coal miners in his home state.

By doing so, McConnell places his allegiance with coal barons, and not their workers.

As coal has declined, the ailing industry has been attempting to "jettison all pension obligations to miners" while still giving multi-billion-dollar bonus packages to executives, as Kelly Mitchell of Greenpeace noted earlier this year.

But the legislation in question, the Miners' Protection Act, "would make certain that union retirees who lost healthcare benefits after the bankruptcy or insolvency of an employer are eligible for the benefits," writes West Virginia's Register-Herald.

Because McConnell refused to allow the bill to come to a vote before the October recess, it will not be considered until after the November election.

Meanwhile, coal miners are suffering. AP reports:

"We're dying like flies," said Billy Smith, a coal miner for 39 years who said McConnell's lack of support was difficult to understand, given all the ailments he sees among his fellow retirees in his local union.

[...] Workers like Joseph Holland, a retired union coal miner in Owensboro, said the federal government owes them their pensions and health benefits because of a promise former President Harry Truman made in the 1940s that ended a costly strike. Holland said he believes McConnell is punishing the United Mine Workers of America for endorsing his opponent during the 2014 U.S. Senate race, which McConnell won easily.

"He says he supports coal, but you know no evidence that he's supported the coal miner," Holland said. "It's very frustrating."

Moreover, last week "the Patriot Voluntary Employee Beneficial Association notified about 12,500 retired union coal miners last week that their health benefits would cease on Dec. 31 without congressional action," AP writes.

In response, Hillary Clinton issued a statement supporting the Miners' Protection Act. "Time is running out for Republican leadership to stop playing politics and give the Miners Protection Act a vote," Clinton said. Trump has remained silent on the issue.

As 350.org U.S. divestment campaign manager Jenny Marienau warned after Peabody Coal declared bankruptcy in April: "Make no mistake, the fossil fuel industry is going down, but it won't go down easy. The priority now is to make sure it doesn't take its workers [and] the communities it has impacted with it."


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