Local retired coal miners are praising a Senate panel’s approval of a bill that would protect the health insurance and pension benefits of 120,000 miners, retirees and widows.
On Wednesday, the Senate Finance Committee approved the Miners Protection Act, 18-8. The measure is now awaiting a vote in the full Senate.
Earlier this month, thousands of retired mine workers rallied on the U.S. Capitol lawn in support of the legislation, which would redirect excess funds from an abandoned mine restoration program to provide about $250 million a year in benefits to retired coal miners and their loved ones.
Supporters of the bill say that it would uphold a promise made by the federal government 70 years ago to mine workers, who now face losing their benefits due to coal company bankruptcies and regulatory changes to the industry.
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) said it could run out of some funds for benefits by next year if the bill fails to pass.
Christopher Mayor Gary Bartolotti, a retired mine worker who attended the rally in Washington, was glad to hear the measure had taken a key step.
“It’s a small hurdle, but it’s a hurdle anyway,” said Bartolotti. “As a retired coal miner under the Coal Act, I was glad to hear it get out of the Senate Finance Committee, and hopefully we’ve got enough votes to send it to the House.”
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Bartolotti, 65, was seriously injured at the Ziegler 11 mine in 2000. He was hospitalized for a month and received plates in his back and an artificial ankle. His brother, Richard, 69, is also a retired miner who was injured on the job.
“Our medical insurance and pensions are directly tied into this bill,” he said.
Pinckneyville resident Arlen Carson was a mine worker for 32 years and is a member of the UMWA’s International Pension Leadership Committee. He said the bill is “badly needed.”
“People think it’s a government bailout, but it’s not. It’s monies that were paid into the federal (Abandoned Mine) Reclamation Fund,” Carson said. “What we’re doing, we’re asking for the interest money off that fund to bail us out. It won’t cost a penny to anybody through taxes or anything else. It’s just interest money lying there in Washington.”
Jack McReynolds, who worked in the mines of Southern Illinois for 40 years and retired from Western Fuel’s Brushy Creek Mine in 1994, said he was “joyful” to hear the news.
“There’s thousands of retired miners and their families, many of them disabled, depending on this to pass,” he said. “This was promise made in 1947 under the Krug-Lewis Agreement signed by President (Harry S.) Truman — all we’re asking is for them to keep the promise.”
McReynolds developed black lung disease from working in the mines, and he has to use an inhaler to manage the illness, especially on hot days, he said. Despite his poor health, he has no regrets about attending the rally in Washington.
“I would go again every week. Whatever it takes to do this — and I’m 80 years old,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, who co-sponsored the bill, commended the committee’s approval in a statement Wednesday.
“The hardworking men and women who have served the Illinois coal industry for generations have helped make our state a leader in energy production and we must ensure they receive the health care benefits they earned and deserve when they retire,” Kirk said. "I applaud the Senate Finance Committee for passing the Miners’ Protection Act and will work with my colleagues to ensure swift passage of this important legislation.”
UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts applauded the bill’s sponsors.
“Now that this important first step has been achieved, it is vital that Congress move as quickly as possible to finally pass this legislation that will mean so much to the lives of thousands of senior citizens across America. There is no more time to waste,” he said in a statement Wednesday.
All 12 Democrats on the committee supported the bill, along with six Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has been opposed to the measure.
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