Many of the men who toiled until they could toil no more in some of the worst American working conditions to power this country — coal miners — won’t live to see their grandchildren or even their own children reach adulthood because of their exposure to coal dust and the disease that results: pneumoconiosis, better known as black lung.
This breath-taking illness leaves its victims disabled and in need of medical treatment that costs tens of thousands of dollars annually per person. That’s why the federal government established a fund, paid for by an excise tax on coal, in 1978.
The fund is running dry because of inaction by Congress and the Trump administration.
A tax on coal that sets the revenue stream for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was cut by about half on Jan 1. It saves coal operators lots of money — hundreds of millions a year — and at the same time threatens the very existence of some 25,000 people who need it (a number that is expected to grow, as more miners are getting the disease at younger ages and after far less time in the mines). Federal budget officials estimate that by mid-2020, there won’t be enough money to fully cover the fund’s benefit payments.
It’s a betrayal. President Donald Trump, who promised during his 2016 campaign to save the coal industry, repeatedly has praised coal miners as “great people. Brave people.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky is a top-five coal producer, and he had promised publicly in late 2018 that the excise tax rate would be maintained.
Our federal leaders must come together, and quickly, to ensure restoration of necessary funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund before it dies a slow death — like many of its recipients will. Black lung damages the lungs (sometimes after just five years or so in the mines). This causes the heart to work harder. In sum, victims die of respiratory or heart failure. There’s no cure but there are — costly — treatments to prolong life and improve its quality.
This issue is especially important for Pennsylvania as it is on the top-five list of U.S. coal producers, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The coal industry should redirect some of the political contributions it made to our nation’s elected officials — including the president and McConnell — to the Black Lung Fund. But, let’s get real: That won’t happen. That’s why the tax on coal must be restored at least to its 2018 levels. The 2018 excise tax rate was $1.10 per ton on underground coal and 55 cents on surface-mined coal. Together, the excise tax yielded $450 million. Rates fell to about 50 cents and 25 cents, respectively, when lawmakers didn’t extend a Dec. 31 expiration date.
The fund provides health benefits and disability payments to about 25,000 retired miners, most of whom worked for companies that now are bankrupt. The mining industry loves the lower rate and says that restoring it to 2018 levels will lead to job losses.
So long as the U.S. chooses to derive some 25 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants, its got to be willing to protect the workers who give their lives to the effort.
— The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette