Front Porch Blog

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

The president of the Black Lung Association (BLA), members of Women of Black Lung, and officers of 11 local BLA chapters across Appalachia sent a letter to congressional leadership on April 23, 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, and instead extend it for 10 years at its historic rate.

The Black Lung Excise 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.

Congress allowed the tax to be halved in December 2018. 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 be halved again in 2021 without congressional action.

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

protest for black lung benefits

Miners and their supporters protest U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) for remaining silent on black lung excise tax in Dec. 2018. Rep. Griffith has still not committed to support extending the tax at its historic rate. Photo by Willie Dodson

“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 Black Lung Association, worked in the mines for 24 years, and first experienced problems with her own lungs in her late 50’s. “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 Kentuckian 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 U.S. 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 eight coal state senators led by Sen. Joe Manchin of W.Va. sent a similar letter to the agency on April 17.

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 to individual workers who have lost income due to the pandemic.

man holding sign

Garett Nunley organizes with the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project. Photo by Willie Dodson

“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.”

A Virginia native who now splits his time between Johnson City, Tenn., and Wise County, Va., Willie has organized with environmental and social justice campaigns in the region for more than a decade. He is Appalachian Voices' Central Appalachian Field Coordinator.


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