Black lung disease strikes 1 in 5 longtime coal miners in Central Appalachia

Strike up a conversation in southeastern Kentucky and it likely will be with somebody whose father, uncle, brother, son or grandfather has died of black lung disease.

A 21st century resurgence of what’s also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis has alarmed health experts.

The fatal disease now afflicts one in five coal miners who has spent at least 25 years underground in Central Appalachia, according to studies from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. What amounts to a doubling of the disease since 2000 has shocked those who had watched diagnoses taper off after the federal government instituted mine safety regulations in 1969.

That rise also scares disabled miners nationwide who count on the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund as a safety net because the coal companies that employed them have gone bankrupt.

The trust fund, funded by coal companies, will be on the verge of insolvency if payments aren’t increased or stabilized at 2018 rates, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO report warns that the fund’s debt will jump from more than $4 billion to $15.4 billion by 2050.

In 2017, the fund paid $184 million in monthly payments and medical benefits to 25,000 beneficiaries nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The excise tax coal operators have paid into the fund will drop by half—from $1.10 to 50 cents per ton of underground coal and from 55 cents to 25 cents per ton of surface-mined coal—if Congress doesn’t extend the increase by the end of 2018.    

Congress last extended the higher excise tax in 2008. In the years leading up to that approval, however, evidence of an increase in black lung had not been noticed and payments from the trust fund had declined.

“Coal miners are facing a one-two punch,” says Evan Smith, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. With the coal industry’s big players filing for bankruptcy, “the trust fund is all that many families have left.”

Smith’s organization, based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, is calling on Congress to follow GAO’s recommendation of bumping up the coal excise taxes by another 25 percent—to allow it to pay off its debt by 2050 without a public bailout.

That would put the tax per ton at $1.38 for underground coal and 69 cents for surface-mined coal.

The “why” behind the leap in diagnoses of a fatal disease that can only be “cured” with a lung transplant is complex.

For one, miners are exposed to more coal and silica dust as they dig through more rock in pursuit of thinner coal seams. Dust is what inflames, scars and eventually destroys their lungs.

Miners point to longer work hours, intentionally faulty dust measurements and the difference in standards between union and non-union mines as the culprits.

They say the claims process is increasingly adversarial.

States such as Kentucky that offer workers compensation, have recently made it more difficult for miners to find medical experts they need clearance from to receive state benefits. As well, claims miners file with the U.S. Department of Labor get tangled up for years—sometimes a decade—in contentious back and forth court litigation with coal operators and insurance companies.

“It feels like you’ve got to be dead or almost dead to get benefits,” says Donnie Bryant, a retired miner in Pike County, Kentucky with a severe case of black lung.

“It’s not the miners’ fault that they got black lung, it’s the coal companies’ fault,” says Jimmy Moore, also a Pike County retired miner whose son is sick with the disease. “We went into the mines to make a living and try to exist. They ought to protect us.”

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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