A half century ago, Congress was in the midst of a major debate about Coal Mine Health and Safety. A key component was the high incidence rate of black lung. Passage of the act was heralded as a major victory to curb the presence of this incurable and potentially fatal occupational disease and provide compensation to miners who sacrificed their lives in the national interest.
Various initiatives were introduced, including dust monitoring devices, dust control requirements, breathing masks, establishment of black lung clinics, and many others.
For several decades, some progress was made in reducing the incident rate of progressive massive fibrosis known as pneumoconiosis or black lung. Then the situation became worse, not coincidentally when the UMWA lost its grip on coal mining production. Small “fly-by-night” non-union firms rose to prominence and those firms no longer had UMWA Health and Safety Committees. Health standards were not diligently enforced and unsafe work environments returned to the forefront, as noted in the study titled “Work Practices and Respiratory Health Status of Appalachian Coal Miners with Progressive Massive Fibrosis” recently published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.
Now, the American Journal of Public Health reports “one in five coal miners who’ve worked in West Virginia, Kentucky or Virginia for more than 25 years, has coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP).”
Not surprisingly, more incidents have come to light such as dust sampling fraud and the concealment of medical data. In addition, another major issue has been the coal industry practice of challenging most benefit claims. The process of how the industry, using some lawyers and doctors, has used its enormous financial resources to rig a system that blocked black lung benefits for stricken coal miners has been extensively documented most notably in a series of articles by Chris Hamby, with the helpof Beckley-based black lung lawyer John Cline, that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
In 1977, Congress passed the Black Lung Benefits Revenue Act which set up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund funded by an excise tax of $1.10 per ton sold domestically of underground coal and 55 cents per ton of surface coal. Ironically, in spite of a soaring incident rate, Congress allowed on Jan. 1, 2019, those rates to be cut in half, causing the U.S. General Accounting Office to estimate revenue would be insufficient to cover beneficiary payments starting in Fiscal Year 2020.
The consequence is an insult to coal miners, who worked hard to keep the lights on in America. It also will further hurt West Virginia’s economy in the coalfields where the lights have already dimmed.
Everyone needs to unite around “Black Lung Matters.” As Mother Jones said, “Not all the coal that is dug warms the world.” Miners suffer for their service to America and they are due reparations.
Dr. John P. David is professor emeritus of economics at West Virginia University Institute of Technology and director of the Southern Appalachian Labor School.