Over 100 miners from across the Appalachian region are traveling to Washington, D.C., this week to lobby lawmakers on a number of issues related to black lung disease, a fatal respiratory condition caused by continuous exposure to harmful dust and rock particles in and around coal mines.
The recent resurgence of black lung, coupled with coal company bankruptcies and a lower rate for the coal excise tax, has brought a heightened sense of urgency to the demands that miners and their family members will be making to Congress this week.
The black lung debate is one that hits close to home for me. My papaw, an underground coal miner for over thirty years, now suffers from the disease himself. It was bad enough that the physical toll of mining forced him into retirement when he needed both of his knees replaced. Today, he is on oxygen 24/7 and struggles to maintain his breathing when walking from his truck to his front porch. On a recent visit to my family’s home, he had to catch his breath on the front step before he could walk into the house.
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It’s hard to watch. Not only because he’s my grandfather, the kind of mythical figure that you think will exist in the same form forever, but because his experience represents just one of thousands of coal miners all across our region. I’m not the only grandson having to watch their papaw being robbed of his breath—and slowly, his life.
Black lung disease affects 1 in 10 coal miners, according to a 2018 report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety (NIOSH). The number is even higher in the coal producing regions of Appalachia, with 1 in 5 miners suffering from the disease. (Source: “Prevalence of Black Lung Continues to Increase among U.S. Coal Miners | NIOSH Press Release | CDC”, 18)
Miners and their families have relied on the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to distribute funds to offset their costs for treatment since it was established in 1978. Today however, the fund is in danger of drying up. Historically, the payments from the fund were offset by the coal excise tax, a tax levied on each ton of mined coal. However, the tax rate was cut in half at the end of 2018 due to inaction by Congress. Coal is now being taxed at $0.50 per ton of underground-mined coal and $0.25 per ton of surface-mined coal, compared to its former rates of $1.10 per ton of underground coal and $.55 per ton of surface-mined coal. (Source: Szymendera & Sherlock)
While a trip to Washington D.C. would seem like fun and leisure to the average person, make no mistake—these men and women are working. They are be speaking to delegations from several coal mining states, including those outside the Appalachian region. Miners and advocates will be asking that the historic tax rate be reinstated for at least 10 years.
The miners are also talking to representatives about the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s regulations around silica. Silica is a harmful component of rock dust that, like coal dust, can cause scarring in the lungs. In 2018, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration lowered the safe level of exposure to silica, but the regulation change only applied to general industry workers. (Source: U.S. Dept. of Labor) If this regulation was applied to coal miners through MSHA, it could potentially decrease the amount of silica dust that miners would be inhaling during their shifts.
These benefits from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund were promised to coal miners, and without them their struggle is exacerbated. There is no cure for black lung disease, and treatment can become costly, particularly for residents living on fixed incomes.
Coal miners deserve better. They always have. I certainly hope that lawmakers will be listening this week. They’re not only going to hear a strong message from these hard-working people, but labored breathing. I hope that in those breaths the story of dedication and the desire for dignity will be heard.
Prevalence of Black Lung Continues to Increase among U.S. Coal Miners | NIOSH Press Release |
CDC. (18, July 20). Retrieved July 15, 19, from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/upd-07-
Black Lung disease rate among miners.
Szymendera, S. D., & Sherlock, M. F. (19, January 18). The Black Lung Program, the Black Lung
Disability Trust Fund, and the Excise Tax on Coal: Background and Policy Options (Rep.).
Retrieved July 15, 19, from Congressional Research Service website:
Coal excise tax rate.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF LABOR. (n.d.). Retrieved July 15, 19, from
Silica exposure level.