CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
More than one-thousand ex-coal miners are losing their promised health benefits in eight months. Murray Energy redirected the blame in its announcement this week to the Obama administration, insisting that the largest independent coal company in the U.S. is the real victim here — of the so-called war on coal.
“Murray Energy’s inability to provide these benefits is, in part, due to the destruction of the coal industry, including our markets, by the Obama Administration and its appointees and supporters, who have eliminated the livelihoods of thousands of coal miners, and their families, by the forced closing of 392 coal-fired electric power plants in America, now and in the immediate future,” Murray said in a statement confirming the cuts. “Due to these action and devastated coal markets, Murray Energy is unable to support these benefits.”
The affected workers are all non-union retirees at five West Virginia mines, which Murray bought out from Consol Energy last year. Unionized coal workers were not affected, but the move impacts anyone belonging to the broad “supervisor” category. “Consol Energy’s hope and expectation was that Murray Energy would honor these obligations beyond the one year period that was negotiated as part of our agreement,” Consol said in a statement reacting to Murray Energy’s decision. “While we respect the fact that Murray Energy is a different company with different priorities, this is an unfortunate and disappointing decision.”
Ex-miners are in bad shape to lose health insurance (Murray claimed 80 percent of the lost benefits can be made up by Medicare). Black lung disease has been on the rise for years while the Obama administration kicked around a long-delayed rule to monitor dust exposure. At the same time, the industry systematically fights coal miner claims for disability benefits with lawyers and well-paid physicians, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. In the past, Murray’s mines have been the target of federal investigations for having excessive coal dust.
At Murray Energy, miners historically have the bad luck of serving as a political tool, too. When Bob Murray’s candidate of choice lost the 2012 presidential election, the company immediately fired hundreds of employees, because the coal industry had, in Murray’s words, entered “survival mode.” Months later, they quietly rehired a number of workers. Murray also allegedly coerced miners to attend a pro-Romney rally without pay and donate to Republican candidates. Most recently, the company launched a lawsuit against the EPA for its coal-fired power plant regulations under the Clean Air Act.
CEO Robert Murray has warned of dire consequences from the “War on Coal” for years. These warnings usually have little relation to the actual level of employment or the full economic picture contributing to coal’s decline. Experts agree low natural gas prices and a sluggish economy contribute the most to coal’s shrinking market share, not government regulations.