They go deep underground, putting their lives, limbs and lungs on the line. They take deep yet humble pride in their work -- because they know what it means for our state, our country, their families and communities.
They're coal miners. And we owe them so much -- including staying true to the promise of lifetime health benefits and a fair pension after they retire.
A couple decades ago, coal companies were beginning to walk away from that pledge -- leaving a handful of more honorable companies to pay the full tab, and steering two key health benefit funds dangerously toward insolvency and thousands of retirees toward a life without health care coverage.
That's why, beginning in the late 1980s, I fought year after year and shoulder-to-shoulder with miners and advocates to protect the health benefits of tens of thousands of retired coal miners.
This fall, we marked the 20-year anniversary of succeeding in that effort with the passage of my Coal Act of 1992, which created two new funds to protect health and death benefits for retired UMWA miners, their spouses and children.
At the time of its passage, my legislation protected benefits for more than 113,000 retired miners and their families across America. Today, those funds continue providing benefits to nearly 24,000 individuals nationwide including more than 8,200 West Virginians.
Over the years, I've heard from miners and their loved ones across our state about what good health -- and the security that comes with having health coverage -- means to them. Some fought right along with me -- even to the very last years of their lives -- to preserve benefits for their fellow UMWA retirees and widows.
That's what West Virginians do, isn't it? We know the meaning of, "a promise made is a promise kept." And we stand up for each other, even when faced with seemingly insurmountable odds and corporate interests that often look at the bottom line rather than the impact on real people.
The struggle for miners' benefits didn't begin with the Coal Act of 1992 -- it's a long and storied battle dating back to President Truman's administration. I have a photo given to me by Cecil Roberts of the signing of the famous 1946 agreement that created the UMWA pension and health care funds next to my desk. I see it every day and am reminded of the sacredness of that promise to our miners.
And we've had to continue our fight in the years since the Coal Act to protect benefits for our coal miners -- including in 2006 when we shored up health benefits for thousands of West Virginia retirees and widows with funding from interest earned on Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funds.
By using interest earned on AML funds that coal companies already set aside for the reclamation of abandoned mine sites, we were able to make sure taxpayers are not on the hook for miners' health care benefits while also preserving the reclamation goals of the underlying AML fund.
Today we're in a position to use this successful approach again. And that's just what I'm pushing for on behalf of thousands of West Virginians facing the very real possibility of seeing their pension fund become insolvent and losing their retiree health care benefits altogether unless Congress takes action.
The UMWA pension plan, which provides benefits to 111,550 miners and retirees nationwide including 35,170 in West Virginia, is on the verge of insolvency largely because of the 2008 financial crisis. Another plan that provides retiree health care benefits to a newer generation of miners is at risk because of the recent bankruptcy filing of Patriot Coal Corporation.
Through spin-offs and acquisitions, Patriot assumed responsibility for health care benefits of thousands of retirees. Most of them have never worked for Patriot, and through no fault of their own have seen their benefits placed at risk because of the company's bankruptcy.
Should Patriot shed its obligations to retirees -- which I've told the company would be severely unjust -- the health benefit plan many of these retirees would be eligible for wouldn't be able to assume the added costs.
That means 7,000 West Virginians -- Patriot beneficiaries and others under the plan -- would lose their health care coverage.
We simply can't let that happen. We can't go back on our word to coal miners who have worked their entire careers under the promise of a secure retirement and lifetime health care benefits. That's why I pledged to the retirees to do everything possible to help.
I've already introduced a proposal to shore up the pension plan by using interest earned on AML funds. And I'm working hard on additional solutions to hold employers accountable for the promises they make to their retirees, and to protect benefits for retired miners when their companies go bankrupt.
This is a new fight in a decades-long effort to make sure our miners and their loved ones get the benefits they worked for, count on and absolutely deserve. Passage of the Coal Act 20 years ago was a profoundly important moment -- one I am proud and humbled to have led -- that preserved a deeply sacred pledge to the hardest working people I've ever known.
Today brings another challenge -- and another opportunity to carry that promise forward.