Coal miners call on Congress for support amidst dual threats from black lung and COVID-19


Rebecca Shelton, Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center,

Willie Dodson, Appalachian Voices,

(NOTE: Several miners and their family members are available for interviews; images are also available; please contact Rebecca or Willie.)

The president of the Black Lung Association (BLA), members of Women of Black Lung, and officers of eleven local BLA chapters across Appalachia sent a letter to congressional leadership today, calling on legislators to protect the health of coal miners and continue support for workers and small businesses in the face of unique threats posed by COVID 19. They also urged Congress to reject renewed calls by industry lobbyists to cut the Black Lung Excise Tax.

Specifically, the BLA is urging Congress to extend the Black Lung Excise Tax for ten years at its historic rate. The tax is paid by coal companies on each ton of coal mined in order to fund the federal program that provides healthcare and disability benefits for approximately 25,000 miners with black lung disease and their families. The program is already millions of dollars in debt. At the end of 2019, Congress restored the rate of the tax to $1.10 per ton for underground mines and $0.50 per ton for surface mines for one year, after which it will automatically cut in half in 2021 without congressional action.

In March, the National Mining Association sent a letter to President Trump and congressional leaders asking for a 50% reduction in this tax to be included in legislation responding to the COVID-19 crisis.

“Black lung started long before this Coronavirus,” said Brenda Ellis, a retired miner from Pineville, W.Va. “It’s ridiculous for these companies to want a tax cut over it. They’re just trying to get richer, while our people are dying every day.” Ellis, who serves as Vice President of the Wyoming County, W.Va. chapter of the BLA, worked in the mines for 24 years, and first experienced problems with her own lungs in her late fifties. “If anything, they should pay more taxes to take care of the miners. But they treat us about like mules.”

“I think it is disgusting,” said Cheryl Banks, a member of Women of Black Lung and the wife of a miner with black lung disease. “You can’t keep taking from a program that is needed. It is disheartening to think that they would do that to coal miners who have worked all their lives and now have an occupational disease.”

Additionally, the letter calls for congressional scrutiny into the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) tepid response to COVID-19, echoing concerns first raised by the United Mine Workers of America and the National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics in letters sent to MSHA in March. A group of 8 coal state senators led by Sen. Joe Manchin of W.Va. sent a similar letter to the agency in April.

Thus far, guidelines issued by MSHA are not mandatory, and rely on voluntary compliance by coal companies. Harold Sturgill, a member of the Fayette County W.Va. chapter of BLA said, “There’s no way [coal companies] are transporting people six feet apart, [and] taking time for three mantrips instead of one – no way.”

The letter also expresses support for measures making resources available to small businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19, as well as individual workers who have lost income due to the pandemic.

“As our communities struggle to respond to COVID-19, it’s essential that our government take care of miners who already have to fight for an adequate standard of care,” said Garett Nunley, a community organizer in Southwest Virginia who has watched numerous family members and neighbors suffer from black lung. “The coal industry has fueled this country for decades, and now is no time for decision makers to turn their backs on our miners.”