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Westmoreland Coal Can End Benefits For Retired Miners, Judge Rules

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When a company goes bankrupt, employees find themselves without jobs and benefits, and that is hard enough. But what about people who have already retired from that company? A judge has confirmed that yet another bankrupt coal company can end health benefits for hundreds of retired miners and their families. Westmoreland is one of the largest coal companies in North America. Wyoming Public Radio's Cooper McKim reports.

COOPER MCKIM, BYLINE: Two years ago, Jim Bills retired after nearly four decades at the Kemmerer mine in southwestern Wyoming. He was a laborer, truck driver and driller. His son works there now, too. He says he always counted on the strong benefits that came with the job.

JIM BILLS: Now my beard turned gray, and it was my turn to collect, and they're going to - they don't want to pay me.

MCKIM: Now, he says, one medical emergency could wipe away his and his wife's retirement fund.

BILLS: And that's just unacceptable. It's greed. It's corporate greed is what it is.

MCKIM: Last October, the mine's owner, Westmoreland Coal Company, filed for bankruptcy protection for the third time. The company had over a billion dollars in debt. It blames a weak market for coal, but admits it took on way too many loans trying to expand its operations.

MIKE DALPIAZ: It's like a blind man trying to run a, you know, coal mine.

MCKIM: Mike Dalpiaz is with the United Mine Workers of America. He's upset that retirees in Appalachia and across the mountain west will also freeze pensions. Adding to local anger, Dalpiaz points out Westmoreland gave its executives millions of dollars last year.

DALPIAZ: I mean, you know, the problem is bankruptcy laws are made for corporations. They're made by rich guys in Congress for rich guys that own corporations.

MCKIM: Westmoreland's lawyer, Michael Slade, says the company negotiated with the union in good faith.

MICHAEL SLADE: This is not the retirees' fault. It is not the employees' fault. It's not the company's fault. It's just the market, which is absolutely terrible.

MCKIM: In many places, coal is now more expensive than natural gas, wind or solar. Slade says Westmoreland worked hard to keep workers' pension plans and arranged in extra year's worth of health care benefits. Slade says it's in everyone's interest for the company to get solvent.

SLADE: Liquidation is worse for everyone. They would lose their jobs. The mines would not continue to operate, and that would cause a lot of problems.

MCKIM: Yet again, Congress is weighing whether to step in and help the miners, the latest but surely not the last casualty in an industry struggling to compete. For NPR News, I'm Cooper McKim.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAVES OF STEEL'S "TRANSVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.