On the first of the year, an excise tax on coal companies to fund federal black lung benefits was cut in half.
The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund covers healthcare and disability benefits for coal miners with black lung disease and their dependents when the miner’s previous employer has gone bankrupt or is otherwise not able to provide these benefits. Black lung is a progressive, fatal disease caused by the accumulation of coal and silica dust in the lungs.
The trust fund is supported by an excise tax that mining companies pay on each ton of coal produced. Since this tax was scheduled to be cut in half at the end of 2018, miners and their supporters, led by local Black Lung Association chapters, had urged Congress to extend the tax at its current rate. A short-term extension of the black lung excise tax was included in the Senate’s early budget bill, but the bill did not pass and the government shut down. The excise tax was automatically cut in half on Jan. 1, 2019.
No one will lose benefits immediately. But the fund, already billions in debt, is expected to run ever-deeper into debt, potentially putting it on the chopping block in future budget negotiations.
“The black lung trust fund is a lifeline for people,” says Bucky Mitchell, a retired coal miner with black lung from Lebanon, Va. “Coal miners have earned it, and that’s something people are counting on.”
In January, U.S. Senate Democrats introduced the American Miners Act, which would restore the excise tax to its previous rate while also shoring up the United Mine Workers of America pension fund. In addition to voicing support for the legislation, miners and their allies are also supporting state-level bills in Kentucky and West Virginia that seek to make it easier for miners with black lung to access benefits.