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Coal Miners Fight Congress To Save Black Lung Benefits

Coal miners successfully pushed congress to extend the coal excise tax that funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to 2021, as the fund is facing financial struggles due to bankruptcies throughout the coal industry. 

The coal industry cited the pandemic in pushes to decrease the excise tax on coal, with the National Mining Association lobbying for a 55 percent reduction in the tax rate. 

At the end of 2019, congress took action to restore the coal excise tax to $1.10 per ton for underground mines and $0.50 per ton for surface miners for one year after the tax rate was briefly reduced. The tax was included in the fiscal year 2020 government spending bill. 

Without congressional action, the tax would have been cut in half, shifting the financial burden onto the government and further risking the fund of insolvency. The tax was extended in the latest federal government spending bill until the end of 2021, when coal miners with black lung will once again have to worry about pushing congress to take action unless they succeed in passing a longer-term solution this year.

“Black lung is a killer, it just destroys all the organs in your body. There’s no cure for it.” said 74 year old Jimmy Moore who worked as a coal miner for 22 years. “I have black lung. My son has complicated black lung. He’s had good friends in the hospital dying on a ventilator because of black lung. I’ve seen young men, 40 to 50 years old on oxygen, with young wives and children left behind.”

Moore’s lung capacity isn’t low enough to qualify for black lung disability benefits, but he applies annually as the disease progresses. He attributes his less advanced case to the fact his mine was unionized, with safety standards and dust mitigating measures enforced by the union. He explained he’s taken a union organizing approach toward fighting for miners suffering from black lung disease, and has participated in five visits to Washington DC over the past few years to push congress to take action to fund and protect the Black Lung Disability trust fund. 

“Senator Mitch McConnell is the hold up I think for all of this,” Moore added. “Congress needs to take action. We didn’t deserve to get black lung, it’s the company’s fault and I think the company ought to be responsible for us getting black lung benefits. We really need to get their attention someway or another, but this coronavirus going on right now is really affecting our ability to get around and talk to people.”

The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was set up in 1977 by the federal government to pay medical and disability payments to miners affected by black lung disease where responsible coal operators are not able to pay. The primary revenue for the fund is an excise tax on coal produced and sold within the United States and currently supports around 25,000 retired coal miners. 

“Congress has no idea what coal miners go through. We give up our health to put coal out on the market, to supply electricity. They take our health and when we get older they try to take our benefits too,” said Harold Sturgill of Beckley, West Virginia who worked as a coal miner for 35 years and struggles with black lung disease. “Congress really needs to look at these companies and monitor them because they haven’t put what they’re supposed to into the black lung benefit fund. It seems like they’ve just let these companies do whatever they want to do.” 

Black lung disease, more formally known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is caused by years of coal mine dust inhalation. Between 1968 to 2014, around 76,000 coal miners are estimated to have died from black lung disease, as cases of black lung disease have risen in recent years, especially in Appalachia among young miners

The US Government of Accountability Office estimated in January 2020 that $865 million in black lung benefit responsibility has been transferred to the fund due to coal bankruptcies, with the fund currently in debt of around $4 billion to the US Treasury. 

“We’ve been working on this for years and we just get a one year extension,” said Vonda Robinson, Vice President of the Black Lung Association of Southwest Virginia. Her organization and others have pushed for the current coal excise tax to be extended for at least ten years. “We shouldn’t have to fight every year to get this done.”

Her husband, John Robinson, worked as a coal miner for nearly 30 years. He was diagnosed with black lung disease around 2013, and it took around six years for him to receive his lifetime black lung benefits, which were initially appealed by the coal company where he worked. Robinson explained it often takes several years for coal miners to receive black lung disability benefits, as the coal corporations delay and fight against awarding benefits. 

“There’s a lengthy process of trying to get benefits,” she said. “Some of these miners are in their 70’s and 80’s still fighting for their black lung benefits. The company is hoping these men will die or give up. A lot of men give up, get tired of fighting and that should not be the case for these men or their widows.” 

Though John Robinson has been able to obtain his black lung disability benefits, living with the disease is a daily struggle for him. He described it as using a push mower to mow a lawn with a pillow over your face. At 54 years old, his black lung disease has progressed from stage one to stage two in just a few years, leaving him to rely on supplemental oxygen at night and throughout the day.  

“We’ve been kicked to the side. We should not have to fight for another year to get our black lung benefits,” said John Robinson. “That should never be something we have to fight for, but we have to fight a year to get it for another year, and go back to fight, it’s repetitive, it shouldn’t be like that. It’s not right. It shouldn’t have to be a fight.”

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1