Coal workers fight for benefits as industry struggles under Trump

Coal workers have been among the president's strongest supporters, but their pensions remain at risk as industry barons thrive.
Image: Coal Miner
A coal miner walks along an underground tunnel at a coal processing facility on May 22, 2014 near Gilbert, West Virginia.Robert Galbraith / Reuters file

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By Heidi Przybyla

WASHINGTON — Dozens of retired miners, some in wheelchairs and using oxygen tanks to manage black lung disease, recently visited the Capitol seeking federal help for their failing pension plans.

A day later, President Donald Trump traveled to the miners’ home state, West Virginia, to raise an estimated $2.5 million for his re-election campaign at an event hosted by Robert Murray, who owns America’s largest underground coal company.

As an insurgent candidate in 2016, Trump promised miners he would restore the industry — and their jobs — after years of steady decline.

But as the president gears up his 2020 re-election campaign, coal magnates like Murray, whose company has a history of labor violations, have been among the biggest beneficiaries of his agenda.

The rank-and-file miners Trump showered with attention as a candidate have been less fortunate as their job prospects dwindle and their communities languish.

The year 2018 was second only to 2015 for coal plant retirements this decade, as the industry contends with strong competition from natural gas and renewable energy. At the same time, safety protections for miners, enacted after deadly mine collapses, have been weakened. Waves of retired and retiring miners concerned about failing pension plans have become a fixture on Capitol Hill, often holding vigils to gain attention.

At issue is the Miners Pension Protection Act, legislation that would transfer public funding into the miners’ troubled pension fund in order to guarantee their pensions and health care. Estimates suggest Congress would need to increase its appropriation by $260 million annually to keep the fund solvent.

Every day for the last seven months, Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, has tweeted at Trump asking him to help protect the retired coal miners living in fear of losing everything.

Trump hasn’t publicly responded, while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose state of Kentucky employs over 6,000 miners, has blocked a separate measure that would shore up miner pensions, according to Manchin, who helped pass a similar measure out of committee in 2016.

“The President is committed to all Americans, including our great hardworking coal miners," White House spokesperson Judd Deere told NBC News. "It is because of President Trump’s economic policies of tax cuts, deregulation— including rolling back the previous administration’s harmful and unlawful so-called Clean Power Plan — and energy independence that coal miners are winning.”

Members of the United Mine Workers of America bow their heads in prayer during a rally on Capitol Hill Sept. 8, 2016. The union and its supporters in Congress say the federal government should honor a 1947 promise to provide for the pension and healthcare benefits of retired miners.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

Mine owners are Trump’s fifth biggest source of individual/family contributors, directing at least $6.1 million toward joint fundraising committees, his inauguration and related super PACs, according to an NBC News review. And they’ve won plenty of regulatory breaks in return, most notably a rollback of the Clean Power Plan, which President Barack Obama enacted in 2014 to help curb carbon emissions.

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The Trump administration has also loosened rules governing coal ash disposal and mercury pollution from power plants. A former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, now leads a shrinking Environmental Protection Agency.

Manchin’s office says Trump has been privately supportive of the miners, yet the president has said nothing publicly to pressure McConnell to act. While McConnell has sought a broader fix to shore up the federally chartered Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the miners have said they don’t have time to wait for it.

That pension program covering union workers in transportation, mining, construction and hospitality is facing insolvency as several individual plans struggle to stay afloat.

“We’ve worked years in the coal mines. It was promised to us,” said Tom Phillips, a miner who voted for Trump in 2016. Phillips, who has numerous disabilities, said he believed Trump’s promise of a coal revival.

“I’m kind of up in the air” on Trump now, Phillips told NBC. “I don’t know what to do anymore.”

Tom Gibson, who worked as a miner for 33 years, has been walking the halls of Congress.

“I don’t like doing this, but we have no choice,” Gibson said. “Somebody needs to do something.”

David Popp, a McConnell spokesman, said the majority leader met with miners this year but believes the looming pension insolvency “is best addressed through a broader bipartisan and bicameral pension reform effort” that includes other industries.

Meanwhile, under Trump, coal executives thrive.

Among those beneficiaries are Joe and Kelly Knight Craft of Alliance Resource Partners, the largest coal donors to Trump. The Crafts, who are worth from $1 billion to $1.2 billion, according to a public disclosure form from 2017, contributed over $2 million to Trump’s joint fundraising committees, his inauguration and related super PACs. Alliance Resource Partners, of which Joe Craft is president, did not respond to requests for comment.

Miners hold "Trump Digs Coal" signs as President Trump arrives to speak at a rally in Charleston, W.Va., on Aug. 21, 2018,Alex Brandon / AP file

Trump named Kelly Craft the U.S. ambassador to Canada, where she served for 20 months. This month she was confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Other mining executives have reaped millions in retention bonuses as their companies undergo the bankruptcy and restructuring process.

“Many of the coal miners recognize there is a distinction between them and their bosses,” said Art Sullivan, a mining consultant and former miner.

Murray, who hosted the Trump fundraiser in late July, has donated $1.4 million to Trump and related super PACs. Since his company is privately held, he discloses little about his wealth.

A Murray spokesperson said the premise that coal executives are faring better than miners is “false.”

“Coal miners make up the coal industry. Coal miners, and the coal mining industry, have been, and are continuing to be helped by the Trump administration,” the spokesperson said.

“Draining the Swamp”

The state of coal country illustrates how Trump’s 2016 mantra of “draining the swamp” in Washington has, in many cases, yielded the opposite — windfalls for donors and lobbyists.

“I will never put the special interests before the national interest. I will never put a donor before a voter, or a lobbyist before a citizen,” he said at a campaign event in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2016. “I am the change candidate. Hillary Clinton is for the failed status quo to protect her special interests, her donors, her lobbyists and others.”

Three years later, hedge fund companies continue to gobble up bankrupt mines and miners lose their jobs while their bosses get lucrative “retention” bonuses during bankruptcy proceedings. Coal mine closures are forecast to continue, particularly in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions, according to BloombergNEF, a research service covering energy.

Retired coal miner James Marcum, who has complicated black lung disease, stands for a chest x-ray at the Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Virginia, on May 18, 2018.Brian Snyder / Reuters file

In early July, two coal mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, which has provided most of the nation’s thermal coal in recent decades, shuttered and abruptly put 700 individuals out of work. That was months after Westmoreland Coal Co., another large coal company in the state, filed for bankruptcy and agreed to sell its Kemmerer mine to investor Tom Clarke, who’s purchased several iron and coal mines out of bankruptcies.

Much like other mine bankruptcies, Clarke was able to stop paying retiree’s health and pension benefits.While Congress in 2017 acted on a permanent fix for health care coverage for miners, it has not acted on pensions.

Meantime the miners interviewed by NBC said their communities, many hard hit by the opioid crisis, are reeling, and include “grandmas and grandpas” raising grandchildren on as little as $300 per month.

“I’m not just saying this," Gibson said. "That’s just the way it is."

Hallie Jackson contributed.