'It's creating a crisis': Breaking down the indebted federal black lung fund

Published: Mar. 21, 2019 at 6:18 PM EDT
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Reports have shown that Congress' inaction caused danger to the federal black lung fund. The fund, for years, has been deeply indebted. Experts at the Appalachian Citizens Law Center estimate the fund is close to $1 billion in debt.

The Appalachian Citizens Law Center is a non-profit law firm that works on issues related to coal mines. Those issues can range from miner safety and health to environmental issues. In recent years as the coal industry has declined, they have also worked on issues as Eastern Kentucky transitions to a new post-coal economy.

As of now, a lot of their work is still dealing directly with miners and their families.

"Not only do we litigate directly on behalf of miners and their families; we also, as a non-profit, have opportunities to advocate on issues that are important to them," said Wes Addington, the center's executive director.

Many of the miners they represent collect benefits for black lung. About 90% of miners with black lung receive their benefits from coal or insurance companies. The other roughly 10% get those benefits through the federal fund.

"It's a very tough issue because you don't want to frighten people unnecessarily," Addington said in reference to the shrinking size of the federal fund. "There can be situations where either the coal company is no longer in business or the insurance coverage is no longer there."

The federal fund gets its money through the tax on coal, a tax that has remained about the same since the 1980s. That tax is about $1.10 for every ton underground coal mined, and fifty-five cents for each ton of coal mined on the surface.

The federal black lung fund has become incredibly in debt as the industry declined, and as more miners have needed it. To keep the taxes at the level it has been at Congress needed to extend the tax, but amid a government shutdown, and successful lobbying by the coal industry, that never happened.

"There was no extension," Addington said. "And what that means is the trust fund, which is billions of dollars in debt, will now most assuredly go further into debt."

The taxes are now cut more than half. Underground coal is taxed at fifty cents a ton, and surface mined coal is about twenty-five cents a ton.

Addington worries because more than likely more miners will need to use that fund as time goes on.

"So, you're going to have more miners with very serious lung disease, that's very expensive to treat, being paid out of a fund that is increasingly going further into debt. and it's creating a crisis, essentially," mentioned Addington.

There really is no solution right now, the fund is deeply in debt and will continue to become more unstable.

"The solution is either those rates go back to a level that would sufficiently fund the trust fund, or taxpayers are going to be on the hook," mentioned Addington. "The scary proposition for our clients is: If taxpayers aren't going to be on the hook because the industry doesn't want to pay for the problems that they've caused, it could fall on our clients."