As Congress finalizes the annual appropriations package and prepares to head home for the holidays, they should respect coal mining communities that have powered this country for the last century by extending an excise tax that supports the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. Not doing so would put corporate interests over the lives of individuals who have sacrificed their health and safety working in coal mines.
The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund provides life-saving support to veteran coal miners suffering from black lung, a disease caused by years of exposure to coal dust. Miners seek assistance from the Trust Fund when their claims are not fulfilled by bankrupt coal companies, many of which have paid out large bonuses to executives before filing for bankruptcy and absolving themselves of promises made to employees.
While the coal industry has been on the decline for decades, incidence of black lung in Appalachian coal mining communities is the highest it’s been in 25 years, especially among young miners. One in five current or former miners is suffering from the disease. This, combined with job loss and decline in local tax bases as coal operations have shut down, means that we have to increase support for coal miners and their families, not abandon them.
If Congress does not act now, the excise tax supporting the Trust Fund will be cut by half at the end of this year. The Government Accountability Office estimates this will render the Trust Fund unable to meet the needs of beneficiaries by fiscal year 2020. It is already billions of dollars in debt. If the Trust Fund were to be supported by additional appropriations, Congress would be shifting the responsibility to support black lung victims from coal companies to taxpayers.
NRDC has joined the National Black Lung Association, its local chapters, the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, and many other national and regional groups in urging Congress to include a ten year extension of the current excise tax rate in the FY19 appropriations package. Taking a small action in this literal life-or-death situation is really the least Congress can do to stand with affected coal miners.
In fact, in October Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “That’ll be taken care of before we get into an expiration situation… It just won’t be allowed to be unfunded.” Now, it’s time to act.
This is just the first and most urgent of many steps Congress should take to support the health and prosperity of Appalachian people and communities as the region transitions to a new energy economy. When Congress returns in the new year, they should look beyond life support measures. Congress should pass the bipartisan RECLAIM Act to spur economic diversification that will empower the region’s workforce, protect natural resources, sustain the region’s cultural heritage.
Congress should not leave Appalachian miners and their families in the cold this holiday season. All that’s needed is to take a deep breath, extend the Black Lung excise tax, and give miners a chance to take a deep breath too.