Miners Not Convinced by McConnell Promises to Support Black Lung Fund

Liz Carey

Washington, DC (WorkersCompensation.com) – A group of Kentucky miners sickened with Black Lung Disease said they worry about Congress’ promise to completely fund the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund after visiting D.C.recently.

The miners were part of a group of miners and their families that travelled to D.C. to visit with their congressional representatives in an effort to ensure the Trust fund is fully funded. Many say their lives depend on it. After a meeting with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the miners had mixed feelings about whether or not the funding would continue.

Up until last year, coal companies were required to pay a tax of $1.10 per ton of coal to finance the Black Lung Trust fund. But the fund has since reverted to the 1977 tax level of 55 center per ton, when legislation raising the tax expired and Congress failed to take action to reinstate it.

“The coal industry had lobbied hard to allow the tax to drop as scheduled, despite a government report saying the fund was in dire financial straits,” Reuters reported at the time.

Miners worry that if the fund becomes insolvent, its debt will rise from its current $4 billion to $15 billion by 2050. The debt would then have to be paid by taxpayers, instead of the coal industry. And without adequate funding, the fund that pays for a monthly stipend for miners who contract the disease, as well as medical expenses for the victims, would be paid for through the U.S. Treasury (or taxpayers) instead of the coal companies.

The fund covers nearly 12,000 miners nationwide. A recent report from the US Government Accountability Office said the fund has never had enough money to pay for its expenditures and has had to borrow from the Treasury Fund.

“Its expenditures have consistently exceeded its revenues, interest payments have grown, and actions taken that were expected to improve Trust Fund finances did not completely address its debt,” the report says. “When necessary to make expenditures, the Trust Fund borrows with interest from the Department of the Treasury’s (Treasury) general fund. Because Trust Fund expenditures have consistently exceeded revenue, it has borrowed almost every year since 1979, its first complete fiscal year, and as a result debt and interest payments increased. Legislative actions were taken over the years including (1) raising the rate of the coal tax that provides Trust Fund revenues and (2) forgiving debt. For example, the Energy Improvement and Extension Act of 2008 provided an appropriation toward Trust Fund debt forgiveness; about $6.5 billion was forgiven, according to Department of Labor (DOL) data (see figure). However, coal tax revenues were less than expected due, in part, to the 2008 recession and increased competition from other energy sources, according to DOL and Treasury officials. As a result, the Trust Fund continued to borrow from Treasury’s general fund from fiscal years 2010 through 2017 to cover debt repayment expenditures.”

The Kentucky miner delegation met with McConnell and his staff for an hour, McConnell’s spokesperson Robert Steurer said in a statement.

“It’s important to note that even though the temporary tax increase expired last year, current benefits for our impacted miners and their families have remained at prior levels,” Steurer said in the statement. “Senator McConnell and his staff have been working closely with interested parties regarding future funding for the program, and will continue to ensure these important benefits are maintained.”

The miners said they remain skeptical, however. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, miners said the Congressman took a photo with them and then left.

“He might’ve stayed a minute,” Jimmy Moore, Letcher County Black Lung Association leader was quoted as saying. “It was a worthless trip, that’s the way I feel.”

Moore said he felt the Congressman was “rude” and that he wouldn’t do anything to re-instate the tax on coal companies.

Kenny Fleming, a former miner from Pike County, Kent.,, said McConnell assured the group “that they were going to be taken care of.”

“We just have to take him at his word and then we also have to keep him at his word, which I think that’s what we’re after,” Fleming told the Herald-Leader. “Hopefully he will come through.”

News brought to you by WorkersCompensation.com