Coronavirus Compounds Black Lung Disease as Coal Miners Fight for Their Health

Graphic: Annabel Driussi/ODP

While we’re still learning about the long terms damage caused by the novel coronavirus, we have enough evidence to show that some of the virus’ victims experience permanent lung damage.

But for America’s coal miners, there’s a lung disease that most fear far more than coronavirus: black lung disease. Not only is black lung disease increasing in prevalence among mineworkers but it’s also become more lethal.

According to Politico’s recent reporting, it’s for this reason that a bipartisan group of former coal miners in West Virginia are asking state lawmakers to enact a state black fund that would pay as much as $5,000 per year to miners who suffer from the crippling illness.

  • Unlike the federal fund, which is running out of money and miners say has been notoriously hard to access, West Virginia miners would not need a doctor to determine whether they qualified for benefits.

As Politico explained, the grim reality for miners is that “the proposed bill presumes something that miners already know: If you have worked in the mines for at least a decade, you probably have the disease and will likely die of it.”

Why This Matters: It’s a staggering statistic that 1 in 10 American mineworkers who have worked in the mines for more than 25 years have black lung disease. It’s a growing epidemic but the coal companies that owe their workers medical benefits and pensions have been able to absolve themselves of their duties through bankruptcy proceedings, leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean up their messes. The plight of miners is yet another reminder of the immense health costs associated with fossil fuels.

How Payouts Currently Work: As the Appalachian Voice wrote, once a miner is deemed eligible for black lung healthcare, federal law stipulates that the coal company that last employed the miner for at least one year is responsible for doling out monthly payments. If the company is unable to pay, usually due to bankruptcy, then the federal government pays through the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

  • Set up in 1977, the trust fund is funded by an excise tax paid by companies per ton of coal sold domestically at a tax rate that was unchanged for more than three decades.
  • But Congress failed to extend this tax rate before the end of 2018, resulting in a 55 percent cut to the tax.

But the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund has long been underfunded and coal companies have routinely tried to find ways to limit payments to the fund.

The Desmog Blog explained that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Mining Association (NMA) sent President Donald Trump and federal lawmakers a letter urging them to cut the tax paid to the fund which also aids the clean up of high-priority abandoned coal mine sites, as well as taking other steps that would financially benefit the coal mining industry.

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