According to a report published in the September 2018, edition of the American Journal of Public Health, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH or Agency), one in every ten coal miners who have worked for at least 25 years in the industry has been identified as suffering from Pneumoconiosis or Black Lung disease. The situation in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia is much worse. NIOSH data has determined that one in five miners with two and a half decades mining experience in central Appalachia have contracted some level of the disease. The Agency also noted that the number of miners diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), the most severe form of the disease, will likely increase at the same rate in the coming years.
“The situation facing miners diagnosed with Black Lung disease has always been bleak,” stated President Roberts. “The fact is, there is no cure for Black Lung, so a miner diagnosed with the disease will see their health continue to slowly deteriorate until they can no longer walk across a room or lay flat in their bed. Eventually, they will die a cruel and hideous death by suffocation. It is becoming more and more apparent that despite all the progress we thought was made to control dust levels in the mines since the Coal Act was passed in 1969, the disease has not been eradicated. In fact, these studies show the disease is worse than ever before. Without aggressive and impartial enforcement, the scourge of Black Lung is destined to continue.” Roberts continued, “It is not a coincidence that the vast majority of these new cases of the disease have been diagnosed in miners working at non-Union operations across the country. The United Mine Workers of America has been fighting for the health and safety of mine workers for more than 129 years and we are certain our presence at these operations would dramatically reduce the occurrence of the disease. It is clear that with the number of new cases of Black Lung being diagnosed reaching historic levels, action must be taken to determine the root causes of this epidemic and correct this public health crisis. The UMWA is ready to fill that void and help reverse this horrific trend.”
Today, Black Lung rates in the United States are higher than the ones that forced Congress to pass the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969, that set maximum dust levels permitted in the Nation’s mines. To put this health crisis in perspective, the number of cases of Black Lung diagnosed through 2016 in West Virginia and Kentucky have increased over 16 percent compared to 1970. In Virginia, the same year comparison shows an increase of over 31 percent. Doctors from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have described the incidence rates as nothing short of an epidemic.
Black Lung Disability Trust Fund Recipients Face Uncertain Future
December 18, 2018, was a significant day in the lives of coal miners who are already afflicted by Black Lung and current miners who may contract the disease. The date, which many miners may be unaware of, was actually established by Congress in 1981 as the day the excise tax placed on every ton of coal produced in the United States would be reduced by 55 percent. This tax is used by the federal government to provide the revenue necessary to operate the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund (Trust or Fund). Congress set this arbitrary deadline in 1985 believing that Black Lung would be eradicated before the coal excise tax expired in 2018. Prior to the expiration of the Coal Excise Tax, operators paid $1.10 on coal produced underground and $.55 on surface coal.
According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), had the Tax been extended, the Trust Fund’s current $6 billion debt would have been reduced to $4.5 billion by 2050. An increase of $.25 per ton of coal would have eliminated the debt altogether. The CBO has determined that allowing the tax to expire, as Congress did in December, will allow the debt to explode and require a multimillion-dollar taxpayer bailout to prop up the Trust Fund.
“No matter how far we seem to come in this Country, whether it is advances in science, technology, medicine or a host of other subjects, some things never seem to change,” said Secretary-Treasurer Allen. “I suppose many industries deny the problems they cause, but the people who own and operate coal mines seem to be the worst. They all argue that they should be allowed to make as much money as possible on their investment without government interference. Then when their actions cause major economic or health problems, they want the government to force taxpayers to bail them out. That is exactly what happened in the aftermath of the recession of2008 and that is what coal operators are asking for now. They want to keep their profits private but socialize their losses. It is time for Congress to tell these businesses they are responsible to pay, not the American taxpayer.”
With a Crisis on the Horizon, Kentucky Punishes Workers
On March 30, 2018, Kentucky’s Republican Governor signed House Bill-2 which was passed earlier in the year by the Republican controlled Legislature. The bill stops workers’ compensation payments, including Black Lung benefits, after 15 years from the time the sick or injured worker begins receiving compensation. But after learning about the alarming increase in the occurrences of Black Lung disease among current and much younger miners, the Legislature used HB-2 to further protect the industry. In response to industry lobbying, they barred radiologists and physicians who are certified B-readers from reading and making determinations on miners’ chest x-rays. Breaders are physicians certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health as demonstrating proficiency in classifying x-rays for pneumoconiosis. As a result of the new law, there are only four doctors in the state certified to read miners’ chest x-rays and determine if miners have Black Lung – three of these physicians are coal industry consultants.
“The inaction by the United States Congress and the action by the state of Kentucky is absolutely unbelievable,” stated President Roberts. “It is a failure of courage for Congress to refuse to take the action necessary to help sustain the Federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund by changing a date set over three decades ago. As for the Kentucky Legislature, it is obvious that they have determined who they are beholden to, and it is not the workers or voters of the state. It is impossible to look at these two decisions and not see that some of our elected representatives have clearly chosen sides in this matter. Unfortunately, they have chosen to stand with their wealthy donors and cast sick and injured workers aside. I don’t know how they can look at themselves in the mirror or sleep at night. They must be held accountable for the human suffering they are causing. This is unconscionable.”
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has introduced Senate Bill 27 that would restore funding to 2018 levels.