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Coal Miners to Hit Capitol Hill for Black Lung Funding

Barry Johnson wears an oxygen tube to assist breathing.
Sydney Boles
/
100 Days in Appalachia
Barry Johnson wears an oxygen tube to assist breathing.

Dozens of Appalachian coal miners plan to visit Capitol Hill Tuesday to ask lawmakers to bolster funding for the black lung disability trust fund, which miners depend upon when no responsible company can be identified to pay for needed health care.

The fund is already billions of dollars in debt, and that will likely grow as more miners develop the disease and coal companies pay less into the fund. Coal companies pay a tax to support the trust fund, which pays monthly income and health benefits for miners who were disabled by the preventable and deadly occupational disease.

The tax rate was increased in 1981 to pay down the fund’s debts and in 2008 that tax rate was extended for another 10 years. But Congress allowed the tax rate to expire last year and companies now pay about half as much per ton of coal.

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Now the trust fund’s debt is expected to rise from $4 billion to $15 billion by 2050.

Over 25,000 miners and their dependents rely on the fund for monthly income and health benefits. Demand is expected to grow as diagnoses of severe forms of the disease skyrocket, particularly among Appalachian miners.

Barry Johnson is planning to make the trip to Washington. A fourth-generation coal miner, he  takes great pride in his decades of hard work underground. Johnson has a serious form of black lung disease called progressive massive fibrosis.


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