The Times West Virginian

Opinion

May 4, 2014

‘Unfortunate and disappointing decision’ has hit the retirees of CONSOL Energy Inc.

There has been more negative news from the coal industry.

At the end of the year, it was reported last week, Murray Energy Corp. will stop offering benefits to retirees of CONSOL Energy Inc.

It involves mines from a transaction that began last October.

Murray Energy, which is based in St. Clairsville, Ohio, then announced plans to buy Consolidation Coal Co.’s stock from CONSOL Energy. The transaction involved West Virginia’s McElroy, Shoemaker, Blacksville, Loveridge and Robinson Run facilities, as well as one closed operation in Pennsylvania.

A certified letter dated April 8, 2014, states that Murray Energy previously informed retirees that as of March 31, 2014, they would no longer be eligible for CONSOL Energy’s Salaried Retiree Medical Plan. In addition to retiree medical, the benefits consisted of Health Reimbursement Accounts and salary life insurance. Murray Energy notified the affected individuals that it would take over the benefit coverage starting April 2 of this year and mail out new identification cards.

Last month’s letter says, “Please be advised that Murray Energy does not provide salary retiree benefit coverage for its retirees. When Murray Energy purchased Consolidation Coal Co., it agreed to provide salary retiree benefits at a level substantially similar to that provided by CONSOL for those retirees already receiving such retiree benefits, but only for a period of at least one year from the closing date of Dec. 5, 2013.”

This December, that period of one year will come to an end.

The document continues, “CONSOL and Murray Energy reserved the right to amend or terminate your retiree benefits and coverage in applicable plan documents and summary plan descriptions.”

There were hopes last year that the benefits would not be lost.

United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil E. Roberts said at the time, “I want to emphasize to the retirees from these mines that the contract that protects their pensions and health care remains in force and there will be no changes to their benefits as a result of this transaction.”

Kate O’Donovan, manager of corporate communications for CONSOL, said that “as part of the transaction … we insisted that Murray Energy continue to provide retiree health insurance to our former salaried employees for at least one year.

“Consol Energy’s hope and expectation was that Murray Energy would honor these obligations beyond the one-year period. … While we respect the fact that Murray Energy is a different company with different priorities, this is an unfortunate and disappointing decision.”

Last month’s letter also tells recipients about RightOpt, an independent advisory service and private exchange that can assist retirees in making choices about future health insurance coverage.

Murray Energy, in an April 16 statement, said termination of former salaried employees’ medical coverage is consistent with the company’s “historical practice.”

The statement reads: “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.

“Due to these action and devastated coal markets, Murray Energy is unable to support these benefits. Murray Energy is making this announcement at this time to allow affected salaried retirees of Consolidation Coal the opportunity to make other arrangements. Over 80 percent of the lost benefits can be made up with Medicare. Also, these former Consolidation Coal retirees have good pension benefits. The company has provided these salaried retirees with information on and access to alternate coverage.”

These retirees devoted years of their time and efforts and contributed to the financial health of their company in exchange for benefits they’ve now lost.

We can only hope that conditions for the coal industry can soon rebound. Coal needs to be a viable part of the national and international energy picture for decades to come. If policies and innovation can make that happen, companies will have no excuse to make decisions that bring so much pain to people who devoted their lives to the industry.

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