Editorial Cartoon

Kentuckians bringing a plea for victims of black lung to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will have a hard time being heard above the clamor of coal industry money — more than $2 million poured into federal races in the last two years by Alliance Resources CEO Joe Craft alone.

Unless Congress acts, a tax on coal production that pays medical and other costs for black lung victims and their dependents will be slashed at the end of this month.

The industry opposes renewing the tax at its current rate. If the industry wins, the Black Lung Disability Fund would lose 55 percent of its funding. The trust fund, already $4.3 billion in debt, would have to borrow even more from the Treasury to meet its obligations.

In other words, taxpayers would assume the coal industry’s responsibility to miners who contracted a fatal respiratory disease in workplaces where dust control was too often inadequate, if not an outright fraud.

In a cruel paradox, black lung in its most severe form is rising among miners as the coal industry declines in Central Appalachia.

Among underground miners in Kentucky who have worked 25 years or more, 17 percent have coal workers’ pneumoconiosis or black lung, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the highest rate in almost 30 years. Among longtime miners in West Virginia and Virginia, black lung is even more prevalent, while the rate in other states is 5 percent..

Central Appalachian coal is bringing about $79 a ton on the spot market. Since 1986, domestically-sold coal has been taxed at a per-ton rate of $1.10 for underground and 55 cents for surface-mined to support the black lung trust fund. Congress has renewed that rate several times, most recently in 2008. If Congress fails to renew it, the tax would revert to 50 cents and 25 cents per ton, plunging the trust fund $15 billion into debt by 2050.

It’s easy to imagine members of Congress demanding cuts in black lung benefits or eligibility, as happened in 1980, to curb that spiraling debt.

After all, McConnell recently said the “single biggest disappointment” of his 35 years in the Senate is failing to trim Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which he called “the real driver” of the national debt. McConnell conveniently overlooked the Republican tax cut that he helped shepherd through Congress a year ago that will fatten the debt by $1 trillion over 10 years.

Coal industry donations for congressional races topped $7 million over the last two years. Craft put $1.1 million into helping elect Republicans last month, including late donations in Senate races important to McConnell. In addition, a revocable trust that shares Craft’s initials and one of his addresses in Tusla, Okla. gave $1 million to McConnell’s super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund.

Earlier this year, the National Mining Association put out misleading information about the trust fund’s health, only to have its disinformation exposed by a study by the Government Accountability Office.

About 25,700 miners and survivors receive health care and monthly cash assistance of $650 to $1,300 through the trust fund, which was established 40 years ago to cover miners whose employers no long exist. Even if all their benefits were stopped next year, the GAO estimates the trust fund would still be more than $6 billion in debt in 2050. Raising the tax rate by 28 cents for underground coal and 14 cents for surface-mined coal would eliminate the debt by 2050.

Speaking in Pikeville in October, McConnell told reporters, the trust fund would “be taken care of before we get into an expiration situation.”

More recently, he’s been mum, omitting any mention of black lung victims from his priorities for the 115th Congress’ final days, stressing instead the need to confirm more Trump nominees to the bench and other posts

A one-year extension of the black lung tax is included in a House tax package that has little chance of moving.

The miners, their families and friends who trekked to McConnell’s offices in London and Washington, D.C. on Nov. 29 at least deserve an answer.

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