Report: Federal Black Lung Fund Threatened

Liz Carey

Coeburn, VA (WorkersCompensation.com) – A tax increase that was not renewed during the budget showdown in January 2019 may mean the depletion of a fund designed to help coal miners who have contracted black lung disease on the job.

According to an Associated Press report, the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund could run out of money to pay for treatment services by mid-2020. A tax on coal mine owners expired in 2019 and was not renewed as part of the budget that was passed during the government shut down. As a result, the amount of payments into the account was decreased by more than half.

As part of the Congress trust fund established in 1978, coal miners paid into a fund with an excise tax of $1.10 per ton on underground coal and 55 cents on surface-mined coal. The rate fell to 50 cents and 25 cents when the rate expired. In 2018 the fund brought in $450 million.

The fund pays health benefits for about 25,000 retired miners, most of whom have worked for mining companies that have declared bankruptcy.

According to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, as many as 20 percent of miners in central Appalachia have black lung disease as of July 2018, the highest rate since 1990. Nationwide, the disease, in which miners with coal dust and other foreign matter in their lungs struggle to breathe, affects one in 10 miners.

Critics say the fault for the fund’s depletion falls on Congress which failed to act on the tax when the budget was passed. They say President Trump, who received major funding from coal companies during his election bid, did not include a restoration of the 2018 tax rate in his proposed budget for 2019.

In a statement, the White House said “President Trump and his administration have always supported the mining industry by prioritizing deregulation and less Washington interference.”

Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) previously said the rate would “be taken care of before we get into an expiration situation,” according to the AP. But in an email to the AP from McConnell’s spokesman Robert Steurer said “benefits provided through the Black Lung Disability Fund continue to be provided at regular levels,” and that McConnell continues to prioritize maintaining and protecting the benefits.

McConnell’s office did not respond to emails from WorkersCompensation.com requesting comment by press time. Sen. Rand Paul’s office also did not respond to requests for comment.

Ashley Burke, spokesperson for the National Mining Association that represents the mining industry, said benefits for the miner’s black lung disease would be paid for.

“The taxes that we pay into the fund are sufficient to cover benefits payments,” she said in an email to WorkersCompensation.com. “There is no ‘savings’ to mining operations – this is a tax that companies are paying. If the tax were to be increased back up to the higher level, that would be a tax increase on an industry that is working to stabilize after years of decline.”

Burke said miners receive benefits from other sources, as well.

“The industry is committed to ensuring that all miners who suffer from black lung receive the benefits they deserve, and it is already paying in multiple ways to ensure that happens,” she said. “Recall that the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund pays the cost of claims when no last responsible mine operator could be identified. Along with the excise tax, and separate from the fund, each operator of a coal mine is responsible for paying benefits to its miners. When a claim for benefits is approved, it is paid by the responsible operator, which is generally the last coal operator to employ the miner.”

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