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Miner protections gone

HUNDREDS of miners and retirees who spent much of their lives working at Cannelton operations in eastern Kanawha County — some of them injured on the job — have been stripped of their employment, pensions and medical insurance, thanks to a successful ploy by coal moguls.

The West Virginia complex formerly was owned by the Addington Brothers of Kentucky, who grew wealthy from their 42 mines stretching from Appalachia to the Rocky Mountains. Altogether, 5,000 employees and retirees, plus many more dependents and survivors, relied on them.

In 2002, the Addingtons filed bankruptcy, then reorganized as Horizon Natural Resources, then filed bankruptcy again. In the second case, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled Aug. 31 that their union contracts are void — thus freeing the owners to sell their mines without passing along million-dollar pension and medical obligations.

When the decision was announced, according to United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, coal company lawyers “began laughing and high-fiving each other, knowing full well that the ruling meant that thousands of Horizon retirees and active coal miners, many suffering from chronic, high-cost medical problems like black lung disease, soon would be without promised health-care benefits and job rights.”

The union appealed the ruling. But the Cannelton operation and others were shut down, throwing employees out of work. Then the union-fighting, Virginia-based Massey coal empire and investors led by billionaire Wilbur Ross paid $786 million for the Addington holdings. Cannelton is to reopen next year as a union-free enterprise.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and other political leaders are trying to change federal bankruptcy laws, to prevent any further corporations from defaulting on labor contracts that promise pensions and medical coverage. But the former Horizon workers — as well as airline and steel employees who similarly lost hard-earned benefits — evidently will remain cast into the gutter.

Coal corporation defenders say miners should be realistic and accept the fact that money-losing owners can’t pay benefits. But this claim rings hollow, because the owners rolled in enormous profits — and recently showered millions on right-wing politicians.

In the 2004 election, three of the Kentucky Addingtons gave maximum $1,000 gifts to many West Virginia Republican candidates such as Kanawha County’s Vic Sprouse, Ann Calvert, Rusty Webb and others. Massey President Don Blankenship — who pocketed $17.6 million by selling some of his Massey stock a couple of weeks ago — donated $3.5 million to defeat state Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw, and also gave to other races.

So the bitter reality is that out-of-state coal moguls have millions to give to West Virginia Republican politicians — but nothing for castoff West Virginia miners.


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