Displaced coal miners and power plant workers seek help with health insurance

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Unions representing employees at the San Juan Generating Station and San Juan Mine have asked the state for about $6 million in energy transition funds to reimburse displaced workers for health insurance costs they owe assume since their dismissal. The funds would come from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.

This is especially important for miners who lost their health insurance at the end of the month in which they were made redundant. Power plant workers, on the other hand, receive six months of health insurance following layoff.

Layoffs at the mine began last year as the facilities prepared to close.

Stephen Curtis, a lawyer representing the unions, said work at the mine and power station was both dangerous and hard on the body. He said the loss of health insurance is one of the factors causing laid-off workers to leave the community in search of work or take “dead end” jobs.

The energy transition funds come from securitized bonds that the Public Service Company of New Mexico plans to issue to essentially refinance past investments in the power plant. Although PNM has yet to issue the bonds, it provided the $20 million to the state this summer.

The Energy Transition Act of 2019 created the mechanism for PNM to access securitized bonds and required that a portion of those funds go to three state departments – Economic Development, Workforce Solutions and Indian Affairs – for the benefit of the communities and workers directly affected by the power station. closing.

Of this funding, $12 million is available through the Department of Workforce Solutions to assist displaced workers.

The Energy Transition Law Commission has requested information in 2020 on possible projects that may benefit from energy transition financing.

The committee plans to submit recommendations to the three state departments. These recommendations could include specific projects to support or areas such as sustainable agriculture.

State law requires a formal RFP process that state departments will follow, but projects that receive support from the Energy Transition Act Committee will have an advantage in this process. However, if the committee recommends reimbursement of insurance costs, the funds could be distributed to skilled workers without going through the RFP process.

By the time the committee began discussing the proposals they had heard on Tuesday, the meeting had already gone an hour over schedule and many members had left.

Many of those who remained supported reimbursing mine workers for insurance costs for up to 12 months.

This would allow workers to have continued coverage for themselves and their families as they transition to a new career or retire. Some of those who have chosen to retire are not yet eligible for Medicare but will soon be. For those who have decided to pursue training that will help them enter new careers, direct payments to reimburse insurance costs will help them maintain health coverage while seeking a degree or certificate.

Tom Taylor, who is the organizer from the Department of Economic Development, did not support the request and said the money should instead be used to support projects that will create jobs for these displaced workers.

Taylor, who previously served in the state House of Representatives, instead suggested that the committee ask the legislature for an emergency fund allocation to help workers who are now paying out of pocket for insurance or who have chosen not to be insured.

Rather than making a decision on Tuesday, the committee opted to reconvene when more committee members can be present and have an in-depth discussion of proposed projects, including direct funds for insurance costs.

Jason Sandel, the organizer for the Department of Workforce Solutions, said the future meeting will likely take place during the first week of December.

Other projects

Throughout the meeting, Sandel stressed the need for projects that can provide aid and jobs quickly. This could disadvantage projects like a pumped hydroelectric storage project.

While the pumped hydro project would create two reservoirs on the Navajo Nation – one in Arizona and one in New Mexico – that could become tourist destinations and the project would create thousands of construction jobs and more than 100 full-time jobs, the funding requested would be used for the studies necessary to obtain authorization for the project from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Job creation is likely still years away and the company proposing the project should provide more evidence that the Navajo Nation not only supports the project but is willing to provide both land and water for the project. to make possible.

And if the energy transition law does not authorize the use of economic development funds on projects involving hydrocarbons, at least two of the proposals concern natural gas.

This includes San Juan College’s proposal requesting $1.4 million to train 55 workers to produce natural gas in a more environmentally friendly way.

There were also two hydrogen project proposals, but one of them – the Libertad proposal – moved from methane-based hydrogen to electrolysis, or using water to create hydrogen. Asked about water rights, Joe Merlino, managing partner of Libertad Power, did not directly identify a water source. Like the hydraulic pump project, the Libertad project is still under study. Merlino said Libertad had not ruled out the possibility of using methane, but he said energy transition funds would not be used to pursue methane-based hydrogen.

Merlino said Libertad believes methane-based hydrogen may have a role to play in the energy transition, but is unsure at this time what that role will be.

He said the company’s shift to focus on electrolysis is based on the direction the market seems to be taking.

Members of the public who provided comments urged the committee to support what they described as the community proposals. These included four proposals to support traditional Navajo agriculture, a proposal for sustainable housing on the Navajo Nation, a proposal to provide off-grid solar power to Navajo Nation residents who do not have electricity and a proposal to create a tourist center showcasing the region’s unique wilderness. training mustangs and contractors to start mustang mares with birth control to bring the population down to a sustainable level.

Committee member Joseph Hernandez commented on the agriculture, housing, and off-grid electricity proposals.

“We’re reaching everything that’s needed within 100 miles,” he said, referring to the Energy Transition Act’s definition of affected communities as being within 100 miles of the power plant.

Taylor said the funding is coming too late to the community to avoid some of the consequences of the power plant closing.

“A problem has already occurred that we were supposed to be ready to kill,” he said.

Initially, the committee had hoped to have projects in place when the mine and power station closed. This would have helped displaced workers immediately transition into new careers.

Some of the delays stemmed from legal challenges to the energy transition law while others were related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A complete list of project proposals is available here.

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