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Media Ignores Shameful Supreme Court Decision

by Alexander Cockburn

Court's decision may affect 7,000 people
Because Karen Finley is a performance artist who likes to cover her body with chocolate, the U.S. Supreme Court's shameful decision on sick coal miners got lost in the shuffle late last month. News editors across the country plainly thought there was more juice in a story about government arts subsidies and Finley's supposed First Amendment rights than in the court's view that an erstwhile coal company can cut loose from paying doctors' bills for retired miners and their families. The plaintiff, Eastern Enterprises, now expects a pretax gain of $75 million, with a rich return to stockholders.

Eastern's suit turned on a provision in the Coal Act of 1992 requiring companies no longer in the mining business to take responsibility for the health of their former workers. The 30 years preceding the act saw vast changes in the industry, as companies left the coal fields and concentration proceeded apace. These days, where once scores of miners might have tunneled for weeks, one operator on a 3,000-foot-wide "long wall" machine can rip out the same amount of coal in a fraction of the time.

In 1988 came the Pittson strike. Miners seized and occupied the Moss III preparation plant in Virginia. Shaken by this display of union power, the Bush administration set up a panel to investigated one of the miners' prime complaints -- the shrunken health and welfare fund, pauperized by corporate flight and the mounting number of retired and often sick miners.

Miners on respirators, along with widows and orphans of the dead, came by the hundreds to committee rooms in Congress and soon forced a bipartisan concession in the form of the 1992 act. For Eastern, this meant that the company, which had previously been getting away with zero costs for its 1,400 miners or dependents, now had to pay $4.5 million a year into a combined fund overseen by the government. Since 1992, Eastern has been arguing that this requirement constitutes a "taking," an unconstitutional seizure of corporate assets, thus undermining what Justice Anthony Kennedy termed the "certainty and security which are the very object of property ownership."

Being an institution with a fine sense of capitalist priorities, the Supreme Court asserted in its 5-to-4 decision that the security of Eastern's property rights was far more important than the personal security of the miners whose surplus Eastern had been extracting all those years.

But with this priority duly asserted, what of the miners? Eastern couldn't care less and will no doubt be joined in its indifference by other former coal companies. The court's decision may affect 7,000 people. Though this is a small percentage of the 100,000 miners and dependents currently drawing from the health and pension fund set up in 1992, we're not talking small change here. Since Eastern's total liability for its 1,400 workers had been forecast as about $100 million, the math on 7,000 takes us speedily to half a billion dollars. Where's this money to come from?

The question brings us to another taking. In 1977, with the environmental movement at the crest of its political influence, Congress established the Abandoned Mine Lands Reclamation Fund, addressing the problem that once the coal was extracted from the earth and the surplus from their workers' pockets, mining companies had as little interest in the holes in the ground as in the condition of the miners' lungs. Not only was the land laid waste, but to this day, children plunge to their death in abandoned mine shafts.

The fund levies a tax on every ton of coal mined to pay for cleanup, said levy totaling up to some $250 million a year. With this kind of money floating across the government's books, it didn't take long for someone to take an unhealthy interest. Over the past five years, the Clinton administration has indulged in its own bout of takings, skimming $125 million a year for deficit reduction, more than twice the amount snaffled up by Reagan and Bush.

Despite the raids by Reagan, Bush and Clinton, the "trust fund" to clean up mines is nearing $1.5 billion, but not a dollar of the principal is spent for its assigned purpose. A splendid coalition called the Citizens Coal Council is trying to force the government to use just the money collected every year for cleanup. In the wake of the court's decision, the council hasn't a hope of prying anything from the principal, now that there's another claimant on the fund. Sick miners and their families cut off by the Eastern decision will be kept going by drawing from the fund established to restore the mine lands. Who says "takings" don't have to have symmetry?

William Collette of the Citizens Coal Council says that if the government spent only the full $250 million taxed yearly, as many as 145,000 jobs would be created, in some of the poorest areas of the country. Here's a good theme for performance artists like Finley, though coal dust is not as agreeable a substance as chocolate.

© Creators Syndicate

Alexander Cockburn is co-author with Jeffrey St. Clair, of "White-Out: The CIA, Drugs and the Press," published next month by Verso

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Albion Monitor July 16, 1998 (

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