Coal miners urge passage of permanent funding for federal black lung benefits
A coal chute in Wise County, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)
With the Inflation Reduction Act poised to pass the U.S. House, coal miners, including those in Virginia, could finally secure permanent funding for a federal trust fund that pays for medical treatment of miners suffering from black lung if the responsible coal company doesn’t pay.
“This is real important to us and to every coal miner, because you can see that actually (black lung) doesn’t get any better. It gets worse,” said Vonda Robinson, vice president of the National Black Lung Association and a Southwest Virginia resident, during an Aug. 4 press call organized by nonprofit ReImagine Appalachia.
Federal law requires coal mine operators to pay benefits to miners disabled by black lung, an incurable disease caused by the inhalation of coal dust, which has been especially persistent in the Appalachian region.
If the operator no longer exists, has no successor or is unable to pay the benefits, the government will step in to bear the cost through the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a pot of money funded by an excise tax on coal.
Congress, however, has failed to consistently extend the tax. On Jan. 1, the rate was more than halved, despite a 2018 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found failure to extend the higher rate would increase the trust fund’s debt from roughly $5 billion to $15 billion by 2050.
The fund’s finances have also been strained by the bankruptcies of coal giants such as Alpha Natural Resources, James River Coal Company and Patriot Coal. Those three bankruptices alone led to the transfer of $865 million in benefit liability for over 3,300 miners from the companies to the federal trust fund.
A 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service found that historically, the excise tax “has not generated enough revenue to meet the trust fund’s obligations.”
Robinson’s husband, a former coal miner, was diagnosed with black lung at age 47, and nine years later faces medical expenses of roughly $7,000 a month as well as the possibility of a lung transplant.
“Just a year for his medicine is probably over $80,000,” said Robinson. Without benefits from the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, “there’s no way we could actually afford to do this,” she said.
Inflation Reduction Act
Under the Inflation Reduction Act crafted by Democrats, the higher rate would be restored and the excise tax made permanent.
Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both of whom voted for the bill last week, said in a joint statement that extending the excise tax would provide “certainty for miners, miner retirees, and their families who rely on the fund to access benefits.”
Prior legislative efforts have been made to extend the higher tax rate, including the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Solvency Act of 2022 proposed by Virginia Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, and North Carolina Democratic Rep. Alma Adams.
The coal industry, however, has broadly criticized the Inflation Reduction Act, a sweeping bill that besides making the excise tax permanent is intended to incentivize the development of renewable energy to help slow climate change.
Asked for comment about the legislation’s black lung provisions, Ben Beakes, president of the Metallurgical Coal Producers Association — the successor to the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance — said that “regardless of any specific provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that increase taxes on coal producers, we are concerned that the legislation does the opposite of what its title suggests.”
“We produce steel-making coal,” he wrote in an email Aug. 11. “Steel is needed for our critical infrastructure programs. When manufacturers are hurt the worst with tax increases this does not bode well for steel-dependent products or for metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel.”
Other coal groups, including the West Virginia Coal Association, argued last week that the bill “doubles the current tax on coal and subjects mining companies to the highest tax of any other American business, effectively costing mining companies tens of millions of dollars in new taxes.”
On the Aug. 4 call, black lung group representatives lashed out against the companies.
“The coal companies can pay this, believe me,” said Robinson.
“They pay their employees and their vice president, stuff like that, millions of dollars,” she added. “So I don’t think the coal company is as hurting as they say they are. They don’t want to pay the miners. That’s not right.”
Gary Hairston, president of the National Black Lung Association, accused the companies of “throw(ing) us to the side” once miners are no longer useful.
“If it weren’t for the coal miners, the company wouldn’t be nothing,” he said.
Policymakers have also noted that in recent years, the most severe form of black lung, known as progressive massive fibrosis or complicated black lung, has resurged in Central Appalachia, including Virginia.
“In 2017 researchers discovered, among coal miners mostly living in Kentucky and Virginia and served by three federally funded Black Lung Clinics in Virginia, what may be the largest cluster of (progressive massive fibrosis) ever recorded,” the 2019 Congressional Research Service report noted.
Reports from local black lung clinics, the federal government’s Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program and Department of Labor disability claims have all showed that “things are going … the wrong way,” said Dr. Bob Cohen, director of the Black Lung Center for Excellence at the University of Illinois, on the Aug. 4 call.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that miners are going to require care for their diagnosis, treatment and rehab of black lung disease well into the future, unfortunately,” he said.
The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Inflation Reduction Act today. Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi has said Democrats, who control the chamber, intend to pass the legislation, sending it on to President Joe Biden.
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