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Law saves health care for retired Kemmerer coal miners
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Law saves health care for retired Kemmerer coal miners

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Kemmerer

Larry Hinton stands in the garage Feb. 12 at his home in Kemmerer. Hinton retired last year from the Kemmerer mine where he had worked since 1976, primarily as a field mechanic.

President Donald Trump signed a $1.4 trillion appropriations package Friday night, averting a government shutdown and saving health care for hundreds of retired coal miners in Kemmerer.

Coal has been the critical economic building block for the southwest Wyoming community, where miners have labored at the open pit coal mine in Lincoln County for decades. They’ve contributed millions of tons of thermal coal to the nation’s electricity supply. For many miners, working at the Kemmerer mine was the only livelihood they ever knew.

But last year’s bankruptcy of Westmoreland Coal Company, the owner of Kemmerer mine, shook the town to its core. Suddenly, hundreds of retired coal miners, many of whom spent decades contributing to the mine, saw their hard-earned health care and pension plans snatched away by a federal bankruptcy judge.

In February, the judge allowed the company to slash the majority of its $330 million in medical coverage obligations to its approximately 1,500 union retirees nationwide, despite protest from workers and their union, United Mine Workers of America. The bankruptcy court reasoned the dissolution of the once-binding union contract would enable the company to maximize its assets and sell the mines.

The decision imperiled the health care of hundreds of retired workers dependent on critical medical benefits. According to an existing agreement reached between the union and company, retired workers’ existing health care plans are scheduled to end Dec. 31. It’s become a familiar story in coal country: Operators facing mounting debt seek relief in bankruptcy court. Companies can often shed tax, worker or environmental liabilities as they refinance.

But federal legislation approved by both the House and Senate offered a glimmer of hope for the retired coal miners in Kemmerer. Trump signed the $1.4 trillion appropriations package Friday, which included the Bipartisan American Miners Act.

The act dedicates $750 million to pensions for approximately 90,000 miners and health care for over 14,000 miners nationwide, according to Phil Smith, the labor union’s director of communications. The cost would be covered through the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act funding.

“It not only takes care of our Kemmerer people, (it) also takes care of our Westmoreland people in Colorado, in North Dakota and in Virginia — that’s a big piece,” Michael Dalpiaz, District 22 vice president of United Mine Workers of America, said. The union leader went on to say the bill was the result of a 10-year battle to preserve benefits to miners. “This thing is very, very, very huge.”

Wyoming lawmakers did not co-sponsor the bill.

The union also secured a new collective bargaining agreement for existing Kemmerer miners under the new owner of the mine, according to Dalpiaz.

After the sale of the Kemmerer mine to Western Coal Acquisition Partners failed to close, a group of secured creditors banded together to take over the ownership of the Kemmerer coal mine in June, among other assets. North American Construction Group Ltd. oversees the daily operations of the mine.

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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