Gary Hairston of Beckley County was 48 years old when he had to give up coal mining because of a lung disease.
“I would love to do something with my grandson,” says Hairston today, 19 years later. “I can’t even do that because I don’t have the wind to do it. Even climbing stairs is pretty tough. “
Vonda Johnson of Nickelsville, Virginia watched her husband give up his beloved mining career when he was diagnosed with black lung in 2013 at the age of 47.
Now, as President and Vice President of the National Black Lung Association, Hairston and Johnson have noted a worrying escalation in disease prevalence among younger miners, leaving miners in their 30s and 40s with scars on their lungs caused by coal dust exposure that will cause discomfort their ability to breathe for the rest of their lives.
“For the last 10 to 15 years, I mean, we’ve been in an epidemic with that,” says Johnson. “And they’re getting younger.”
What is getting on in the years, say Hairston, Johnson, and other miner advocates, is that federal regulators and lawmakers are not doing enough to keep miners at work and to care for them after their lungs are scarred.
A webinar presented on Wednesday evening by a panel of miners and advocates from West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia called on Congress to extend and increase a tax on coal production that provides health benefits to miners and state mining regulators to help meet regulations Protecting miners from blackening bolsters lung disease in the first place.
“We have to do something,” said Johnson.
Members of the National Black Lung Association, the Appalachian Voices environmental group, and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a Kentucky-based not-for-profit law firm that represents miners on black lung and mine safety issues, urged Congress to permanently extend and reduce 25% to increase. an excise tax that coal producers must pay when the coal they produce is first sold or used.
Excise tax is the primary source of income for the Federal Black Lung Program and the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which pays miners disabled by the disease and their entitled survivors and dependents when no responsible coal operator is identified or when the liable operator does not pay.
The open pit excise duty rate is $ 0.55 per ton, or 4.4% of the sale price, whichever is lower. The excise rate for coal mined underground is $ 1.10 per tonne, or 4.4% of the sale price, whichever is lower.
But the same rising number of coal company bankruptcies threatening the solvency of mine rehabilitation loyalty programs in West Virginia and across the country has also weighed on the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
A 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an impartial agency investigating federal spending, found that only three coal mine operator bankruptcies from 2014 to 2016 added an estimated performance responsibility of $ 865 million to the fund, with more Bankruptcies are expected.
A 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office found that trust fund borrowing could exceed $ 15 billion by 2050.
That report found that increasing excise tax rates by 25% was the only way to eliminate simulated trust fund debt by fiscal 2050.
But the miners’ advocates struggled just to make sure that excise taxes are increased year on year.
Taxes, which were cut to their original rates of $ 0.50 and $ 0.25 per tonne of underground and open pit coal for just one year in 2019, are slated to return to those rates by the end of the year, provided Congress does not act.
“It feels like begging for this one-year extension of this tax that only funds absolutely critical resources that people depend on for life,” said Willie Dodson, Appalachian Central Field Coordinator for the Appalachian Voices environmental group.
In April, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Proposed a bill, endorsed by six Senate Democrats, that would permanently increase the tax by 25%, in line with the Government Accountability Office’s finding that such an increase would up the trust fund’s debt 2050 could eliminate.
“There is a solution,” said Dodson. “Congress needs to raise the excise duty on the black lung by 25% … We are in a crisis and it is not easing. Miners are getting sicker than in previous generations. “
A 2018 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, based on X-ray data collected from working underground miners by the NIOSH Health Monitoring Program for Coal Workers from 1970 to 2017, found that the prevalence of severe black lung in the Central Appalachian Mountains was so has been high (5%) since records began in the early 1970s.
Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy and Organization at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, noted that the law has come through the firm’s law firm since 2014 and is getting younger than 100 miners with progressive massive fibrosis – an advanced condition of the lung scars – after the company had only represented very few such miners until then.
But Sander’s proposal did not find support from the West Virginia congressional delegation.
Senator Joe Manchin, DW.Va., was one of six Senate Democrats who tabled a bill in the last session of Congress that would have extended the excise duty to 2030. However, his office declined to comment on the proposal to permanently increase the tax.
A spokesman for Senator Shelley Moore Capito, RW.Va., made no comment as of Thursday’s editorial deadline.
Rep. Alex Mooney, RW.Va., stressed the importance of the trust fund in a statement but was reluctant to raise the tax that is backing it.
“There has to be a more efficient way to continue this program without raising taxes for a troubled industry,” said Mooney.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Carol Miller, RW.Va., condemned the proposed excise tax hike as a “resurgence of the war on coal intended to destroy our communities and usher in a radical socialist agenda,” saying the focus should be on reducing cases and growing mining operations to instead support the trust fund at equal or lower rates.
In a statement, MP David McKinley, RW.Va., said he supported ensuring miners and their families get the benefits they deserve, but argued against increasing excise taxes.
“[R]Raising taxes for coal companies already struggling to survive is not a solution, ”McKinley said. “This will only lead to more bankruptcies for the coal industry – and more jobs lost in the coal fields.”
United Mine Workers of America spokesman Phil Smith said the union is in favor of fully expanding the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund’s tax well into the future, rather than continuing the year-on-year extension, but does not support an increase in the consumption tax.
“We have far too much experience of what goes on in bankruptcy courts, which is relieving companies of their obligations to pay this tax and many other legacies,” said Smith. “That only increases the burden on taxpayers.”
Neither Smith nor the West Virginia congressional delegates identified any alternative proposals to increase the tax.
“We’re working on this with multiple stakeholders and members of Congress,” said Smith.
Proponents also urged the Federal Administration for Mine Safety and Health to lower the allowable exposure limit for crystalline silicon dioxide, a potentially life-threatening carcinogen and a contributing cause of black lung disease.
The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Labor released a report in November that found that the Mine Safety and Health Administration had failed to adequately protect miners from the disease.
The Office found that the MSHA’s silica exposure limit is out of date as the agency has essentially kept the limit set in the 1960s.
“[MSHA] doesn’t do enough to protect our miners or we wouldn’t have that kind of [advanced black lung] Cases we have at the age miners come with, ”said Debbie Wills, who has been a black lung consultant in South West Virginia for 32 years. “You are clearly not doing enough.”