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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

Appalachia Lawmakers Take Up Black Lung Benefits Bill

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June Leffler / WVPB
A representative from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health brought real life lungs to a community meeting. The left shows the lung of someone who had a advanced form of black lung.

Former coal miners and their advocates are praising a bill introduced Thursday in Congress. The bill would set a higher, fixed tax on coal companies, putting that money directly towards benefits for miners with Black Lung.

Black Lung organizers across Appalachia have convinced their U.S. senators to support the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Act of 2021. Sen. Joe Manchin and other lawmakers from Ohio, Virginia, and Pennsylvania introduced the bill Thursday.

“For generations, our brave coal miners have risked their lives and health to power our great nation ... they have earned the vital treatment and medical care they need,” said Manchin in a press release.

The bill would require coal companies to pay a fixed excise tax rate for 10 years at a time. Those taxes help pay for the healthcare and cash benefits of miners with Black Lung.

Currently, the tax rate has to be authorized every year on Capitol Hill, and miners' advocates have to nudge Congress annually to re-up the tax. Right now, the full tax is set to sunset in December. When that happens coal companies are still on the hook to pay something, but it's only half the rate they historically have paid.

“Giving us 10 years of the historically higher excise tax prevents us from having to fight every year. We don’t have to worry every year about how the fund will be paid or have to call in to make sure they pass an extension,” said Gary Hairston, president of the National Black Lung Association, based in Fayette County, West Virginia.

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Earl Dotter
Former mine worker Gary Hairston speaks to senators in Washington D.C. in 2019.

The federal benefit fund is $4 billion in debt. The exorbitant debt has not reduced miners' benefits. But advocates say the higher tax keeps coal companies, not taxpayers, accountable for the risks miners face.

“We know that an extension of the excise tax isn't the only measure that is needed to address the solvency of the fund, but it is an important first step and we look forward to working with all of these senators to develop a long-term solution,” said Rebecca Shelton, director of policy and organizing at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center based in Kentucky.

Even as coal production wanes, Black Lung cases in Appalachia are higher than they’ve ever been recorded, according to a federal health study. It says that one in five career miners in Appalachia have Black Lung.

Appalachia Health News Reporter, jleffler@wvpublic.org, 502-377-0438, @june_leffler

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