June 5, 2018 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

An analysis by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports the program that provides lost wages and medical care reimbursements to miners disabled by black lung disease is $4.3 billion in debt. If Congress fails to act before the end of the year, that debt will explode to $15 billion.

The solvency of the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund worries former coal miners Sheralin Greene, 57 and Kenny Fleming, 59, who both suffer from work-related lung disease.

“It’s not our fault that we got this disease,” Green told NPR’s Howard Berkes. “We did keep the lights on … We were just trying to help America … They better take care of the coal miners.”

Berkes wrote yesterday about the GAO report.

The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was established in 1969 as part of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act.  Besides preventing deaths and injuries, lawmakers expected the law’s protections to result in a next generation of workers who did not develop coal dust-related lung disease.  That’s not been the case and the situation is getting worse.

An epidemic of black lung disease is devastating families in central Appalachia.  Since 2011, nearly 2,000 coal miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia have been diagnosed with the most severe form of black lung disease.  Today’s coal miners are developing a rapidly progressive form of the disease at a younger age than in past generations.  These newly diagnosed miners will be trying to secure benefits from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

The Trust Fund is financed by an excise tax on coal sold by mine operators, but the tax rate is not adequate to meet the program’s obligations to disabled coal miners.  Shortfalls have been resolved over the years by borrowing from the U.S. Treasury.  In fiscal year 2017 alone, the Trust Fund had to borrow more than $1 billion.

The rate for the coal excise tax was last updated in 1986.  The tax rate for coal from underground and surface mines is $1.10 and 50 cents per ton, respectively.  If Congress fails to act before the end of 2018, the rates are scheduled to drop to a pre-1986 level—just 50 cents and 25 cents per ton for underground and surface coal, respectively. (Had the rates been adjusted simply for inflation, they would be $2.50 and $1.25 per ton of coal from the two types of mines.)

Kenny Fleming, 59, depends on the $970 disability check he receives monthly from the Trust Fund.  He told CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen and John Bonifield that he would feel “betrayed” if his benefits were cut. Fleming said:

Black lung disease ‘takes a vicious toll on a person’s body.  …It just seems like coal miners are used for what they’re worth, and when it’s time to compensate them for their hard work and their dedication, they’re forgotten sometimes.’

In order to be eligible for a  monthly disability payment, a miner has to be diagnosed as permanently disabled.  In 2017, more than 25,000 disabled coal miners and their dependents were assisted by the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

In its report released yesterday, GAO auditors estimated the magnitude of the debt through 2050. If Congress allows the excise tax rate on coal to revert back to the pre-1986 level, the debt will exceed $15 billion. GAO’s projections, however, do not include the added financial strain on the Trust Fund given the new epidemic of black lung disease in central Appalachia. Many of these newly diagnosed coal miners are likely not yet receiving disability compensation from the Trust Fund.

Many miners postpone medical screening tests for black lung disease to avoid being discriminated against for having the disease.  Coal miners wait to get tested until after they retire or otherwise leave the industry.   As electric power plants continue to convert to cleaner energy sources, there will be fewer coal mining jobs, and thus more miners leaving the industry.  There’s no doubt many more former coal miners will be diagnosed with black lung disease in the next few years. Some will be permanently disabled by the disease and will be eligible for disability compensation from the Trust Fund. These looming demands on the Trust Fund make it critically important for Congress to address the financial stability of the program.

Who’s responsible for the problem? The coal industry.

Black lung disease is 100 percent preventable by controlling miners’ exposure to respirable coal dust and silica.  The coal industry knew that the dust concentrations to which miners were being exposed were too high and would cause lung disease.  On top of that, the industry used legal maneuvers and their influence with lawmakers to obstruct policies that would have provided greater protections for miners. (E.g., here, here.)   The consequence has been hundreds of thousands of Americans with disabling and deadly lung disease. The disease could have been prevented, but instead since 1970, more than $46 billion has been paid out to miners’ families for medical bills and lost wages.

The coal industry is quick to blame coal miners and Congress for their problem.  The National Mining Association is saying that the Trust Fund allows too many miners to receive compensation, or erroneously claims that smoking causes black lung disease.  The coal industry wants Congress to have taxpayers pay off the Trust Fund’s debt. Congress already did that once in 2008. It ordered the Treasury Department to forgive $6.5 billion of the coal industry’s debt to the Trust Fund.

“Coal operators caused this problem, and they are the ones who should be responsible for funding the compensation these workers receive,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers Union.  “Letting them off the hook by reducing the amount they are required to pay is not just wrong, it is rewarding bad corporate behavior.”

Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Richard Neal (D-MA) requested the GAO investigation on the solvency of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.  They are ranking members of the House committees with oversight of the Labor Department which manages the Trust Fund.


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