Beyond Lip Service: Why can’t Congress fund an Rx for Appalachian coal country?

WHITESBURG, Ky.—Clinton Sanders can never gulp quite enough air.

At night, he is tethered to an oxygen machine. And his constant daytime companion is a small, blue zippered case packed with an array of inhalers and other medicines doctors have prescribed to open passageways to his darkened, shriveled lungs.

The soft-spoken 79-year-old, who spent 27 years mining coal near his hometown of Ashcamp, was diagnosed with black lung disease in 2010. And like the thousands of other miners, young and old, slowly suffocating from an incurable disease that has reached epidemic proportions in the region, the great-grandfather of five never knows if his next breath might be his last.

He survived a bout with pneumonia last April and a quintuple bypass heart surgery more than a decade ago.

Clinton Sanders
Clinton Sanders

“I’m an outdoor person, and I used to do a lot of hunting and fishing, but I haven’t been able to do that anymore,” he says, leaning on his cane. “I cannot walk very far at all because I get too winded.”

A recent alarming leap in black lung—attributed to blasting through thicker rock in search of thinning coal seams—has galvanized a scrappy coalition in Kentucky and other Appalachian states intent on forcing the U.S. Congress to lend more than lip service to the scarred bodies and landscapes left behind by more than a century of mining.

Ironically, the man with the wherewithal to make the coalition-backed $1 billion RECLAIM Act a priority in Washington, D.C. is Republican Mitch McConnell—a fellow Kentuckian and the powerful agenda-setting Senate majority leader. But Sanders and others don’t think he’s listening. 

Won’t cost taxpayers a dime

RECLAIM is short for this mouthful: the Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More Act. Versions of it are now on hold in both chambers of a mostly paralyzed Congress.

To the scores of miners and their families, social justice nonprofits, local government leaders and other coalition advocates, the measure is an antidote for people left behind by a coal economy that has collapsed as the country transitions to cleaner and cheaper energy from solar, wind and natural gas. Part of the legislation’s appeal is that the money is readily available.

Since 1977, Congress has required coal companies to pay into the federal Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) Fund for each ton they mined. The fund was designed to address pre-1977 abandoned minelands that were ignored or inadequately restored.

Distribution of the $1 billion over five years among coal states nationwide to spur community growth by reinventing played-out mines as agriculture, energy, industrial and tourism enterprises. Kentucky’s share would be roughly $100 million.

Fixing broken land is just one of the coalition’s goals. In tandem, participants also want to ensure that miners crippled with black lung aren’t dismissed as collateral damage.

They want coal operators to continue paying a higher excise tax per ton mined into the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a separate 1977 federal mandate. The safety net, designed to provide financial aid and healthcare to miners “orphaned” by bankrupt coal companies, is in danger of becoming insolvent.

Unless Congress acts by the end of the year to stabilize or increase excise taxes on underground and surface-mined coal, both payments will be sliced by more than half. Those cuts would jeopardize payments to ill miners and cause the fund’s debt to rise from its current $4 billion to $15.4 billion by 2050, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Portal 31 in Lynch, Ky., has been turned into a visitor attraction.

At least 4,000 Kentucky families are among the roughly 25,000 families nationwide that count on the fund’s benefits, according to the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. 

“What’s unfolding across Appalachia right now is a national disgrace,” says Wes Addington, an attorney with the nonprofit’s Whitesburg office. “Pairing legislation that protects the trust fund with the RECLAIM Act is a clear solution for struggling coal miners and their communities.”

A McConnell Disconnect

A Kentucky license plate touting the state’s historic pride in coal.

What befuddles them, to some degree, is why McConnell’s support for his constituents has been so lukewarm. The RECLAIM bill he introduced in the Senate last year has sat idle.

For the most part, coalition participants are pleased with how Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) has taken ownership of the RECLAIM Act, even though it has lingered since 2016 without advancing to the House floor under Republican leadership.

Hopeful supporters were deflated in March when the RECLAIM/disability trust fund package was left out of the $1.3 trillion catch-all omnibus spending bill. They are fully aware, that the fossil fuel companies that have McConnell’s ear and fund his campaigns oppose the legislation, claiming it will only add to their financial duress.

Retired miner Jimmy Moore—one of Sanders’ neighbors in Pike County—is just one of dozens in the coalition who carpools regularly to the nation’s capital to ask his lawmakers to pass the RECLAIM package.

Jimmy Moore

“It felt like we blowed a bunch of hot air out and it just vanished like a vapor,” Moore, 73, says about a fall meeting McConnell’s staff in his Washington, D.C. office. “They probably laughed at us when we left.

“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Nobody can say one thing he as done for eastern Kentucky.”

Moore, a miner for 20 years, has advanced from treasurer to president of the tiny but nimble Letcher County chapter of the Black Lung Association, a national dues-paying organization that advocates for miners in coal country.

He hasn’t been diagnosed with black lung because “my breathing is still too good,” but he’s familiar with the disease’s telltale convulsive cough because his 50-year-old son is severely compromised by the disease. That son, who lives about a mile away with his wife and two children, gasps for breath every morning.

Black lung killed the elder Moore’s father and stepfather.

Coal companies should be preventing black lung, Moore says, and at the very least protecting sickened miners by caring for them properly.

And that effort should dovetail with reinventing job opportunities for upcoming generations of a labor force that was counted on for decades to perform back-breaking work required to harvest an energy source that powered the country’s industry, military and electrification projects for decades.

“I thank God I am able to go to Washington and speak for my fellow miners because most of them are too sick to go,” Moore says. “I’m happy to represent them.”

Lately, Moore and his colleagues have felt like political pawns. Promised help is rarely delivered.

Retired miner Donnie Bryant 66, emphasizes that he and his co-workers took pride in their jobs. His father died of black lung at age 62 and Bryant was diagnosed in 2011 after two dozen years in the mines. Poor breathing has caused hypertension and weakened his heart’s pumping mechanisms.

Donnie Bryant

“You still live but you’re punished,” he says. “Even on oxygen, I am starved to death for air.”

Bryant’s circulation is so poor that he fears both of his legs will have to be amputated.

“Most younger people have to leave this area to get jobs,” he says.  “We’re asking for jobs. Think about how many jobs that RECLAIM can make for us.”

These days, a conveyor moves more weeds than coal at Portal 31 in Lynch, Ky., which is now a destination for tourists.

Some of Appalachian minelands, and laid-off miners, are already part of smaller-scale, restoration pilot projects initiated by the Obama administration. That model resembles what a robust RECLAIM could be, but money for the pilots comes from a separate pot in the Treasury Department, not coal companies.

Patty Amburgey is secretary of the Black Lung Association chapter in Letcher County, now entering its fourth year. She turned to advocacy after her husband, Crawford, died of black lung in 2007, distraught that officials seemed unfazed about leaving desperate people and communities behind.

“It’s not only about the present, but also the future,” she explains.  “That’s the reason I fool with this.”

In 2016, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania received $30 million apiece for pilot projects tying reclamation with development because they have the majority of the high priority abandoned mine sites.

By 2017, the total budget jumped to $105 million and expanded to Virginia, Ohio and Alabama. Last year, Native American tribes were included in the $115 million budget.

Unlike RECLAIM, pilot projects also allow for worker retraining. Programs in Kentucky as varied as teaching laid-off coal miners to become electric utility at a community college in Leslie County and transforming a mountaintop removal site in Bell County into a wildlife refuge and tourist attraction.

In nearby Wise County, Virginia, the city of Norton is collaborating with partners to build an industrial park on a former mine site at the intersection of two four-lane highways.  (LINKS HERE)

But those millions don’t have nearly the heft of RECLAIM and its $1 billion.

“There’s a lot of bipartisan support in the House, though at the end of the day it can’t just be that chamber,” says Eric Dixon, coordinator of policy and community engagement at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “The McConnell piece remains crucial. If he makes this a priority, it passes.”

Thus far, he hasn’t. The Band-Aid approach McConnell and the Senate Republicans took last December tacked a one-year extension to the black lung excise tax onto the initial draft of an end-of-year tax extender bill. Some GOP Tea Party members had threatened to vote against the bill if it included the tax. The House GOP budget bill did not even include the extension.

John Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers between 1920 and 1960, is revered by the dwindling labor movement. This tribute is in Benham, Harlan County.

So, as of Jan. 1, the tax was halved. That prompted Senate Democrats to introduce legislation to restore the excise tax. But the American Miners Act likely won’t move forward unless Democrats regain the majority in the upper chamber next year.

Willie Dodson, a field coordinator with the advocacy group Appalachian Voices, has harsh words about the apparent disconnect between McConnell and Appalachia.

“Supporting either of these measures would be admitting that the coal industry is culpable for dire environmental and public health problems, and ought to be held financially responsible for addressing them,” says Dodson, adding that McConnell’s allegiance is to the National Mining Association.

“Coal-state politicians talk a lot about how much they support coal, but that has never meant they support the miners or the folks who live where coal is mined.”

Voices for the future

The law center and other nonprofits, such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, have been instrumental in helping community members go beyond kitchen table kvetching sessions, Amburgey says. They have learned to set an example for the next generation by voicing their needs to those in power.

Patty Amburgey

“That RECLAIM money shouldn’t lay there,” she says. “It is our coal money and we want it back. We have acres and acres of stripped land that can be straightened up and reused.”

When she needs motivation to push and prod local government leaders into backing the coalition, she reflects on heartbreaking moments with her dying husband.

When he begged her for air, she would place her hand on the oxygen tank dial—one that couldn’t be forced any higher because it was already at maximum flow.

“Not being able to breathe took away his freedom and dignity,” she says. “Each time I brought him to the hospital, a different part of him was left behind. It embarrassed him to depend on other people.”

Pine Mountain is a treasured southeast Kentucky landmark between Harlan and Letcher counties.

Sanders is also frustrated by his limitations. And he resents being owed at least $70,000 in federal black lung compensation and benefits because of a seven-year dispute involving coal and insurance companies.

As a 17-year-old, a strapping Sanders left coal country behind, eager to forge his future in Illinois.

“I stayed gone 14 years,” he says about marrying in Chicago, having three children and working at a defense plant. “Being away, I never could get satisfied. It’s the mountains. They never let go of you.”

Upon returning home, he found jobs at a series of mines. During his spare time each autumn he would forage and sell enough ginseng to buy school clothes for his son and two daughters.

And oh how he misses those mountain expeditions. 

“To me, it’s a beautiful plant,” he says with a smile. “I can still close my eyes at night and see it.”

  • Grants from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Society of Environmental Journalists provided partial funding for this series of articles originally published in Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine in January 2019.

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a Washington, D.C.-based, award-winning energy and environment reporter. As a staff writer for InsideClimate News, her groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. An e-book version of the narrative won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Elizabeth, who started her career at daily newspapers in Vermont and Wisconsin, has served as a Washington correspondent for Crain Communications, Penton Media, and most recently, Energy Intelligence. Her freelance news reports and features have also appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine; Washingtonian magazine; Intelligent Utility magazine; Outdoor America (magazine of the Izaak Walton League); the journal Appalachia; Capital Community News; the Gulf of Maine Times; Mizzou, the alumni magazine for the University of Missouri; Lore, the magazine of the Milwaukee Public Museum; and Nature Conservancy magazine Elizabeth’s latest reporting venture is Renewal News, a start-up that explores the intersection of nature, labor and energy. The idea is to tell stories about how U.S. communities are evolving as climate change forces all sectors to re-examine their relationship with a fossil-fuel dominant economy.

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