Jun 3, 2018, 12:45 PM ET

Coal lobby fights black lung tax as disease rates surge

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As a young man, Barry Shrewsbury dug coal in the West Virginia mines and spent his time off hunting and fishing in the rolling hills.

Now, at 62, he struggles to breathe and accomplish basic tasks such as shopping and showering, and relies on a federal fund for ex-miners with black lung disease to pay for an oxygen tank and hospital visits.

"The benefits are a lifeline," Shrewsbury said between labored breaths after a treatment at the Bluestone Health Center in Princeton, West Virginia, an industrial-style building set against the leafy landscape.

That lifeline is threatened. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund risks insolvency due to soaring debt and a slashing of coal company contributions through a tax cut scheduled for the end of the year, according to a report the U.S. Government Accountability Office plans to publish soon, two sources briefed on it told Reuters.

PHOTO: Radiology technician Mark Davis looks at the chest x-ray of retired coal miner James Marcum, who has complicated black lung disease, at Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Va., May 18, 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters
Radiology technician Mark Davis looks at the chest x-ray of retired coal miner James Marcum, who has complicated black lung disease, at Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Va., May 18, 2018.

That shortfall -- which comes as black lung rates hit highs not seen in decades -- could force the fund to restrict benefits or shift some of the financial burden to taxpayers, the sources said on condition of anonymity. The fund currently provides medical coverage and monthly payments for living expenses to more than 15,000 people, according to a Congressional report published this year.

The coal industry, meanwhile, is lobbying Congress to ensure the scheduled tax reduction goes forward, arguing the payments have already been too high at a difficult time for mining companies and that the fund has been abused by undeserving applicants.

PHOTO: Coal camp company houses sit below the Lone Mountain Processing coal mine in St. Charles, Va., May 18, 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters
Coal camp company houses sit below the Lone Mountain Processing coal mine in St. Charles, Va., May 18, 2018.

“More often than not, we are being called upon to provide compensation for previous or current smokers,” said Bruce Watzman, head of regulatory affairs for the National Mining Association.

He said this position was based on "discussions with those administering this program for companies" but conceded he had no research on black lung benefits paying for smoking-related diseases.

Medical experts dispute that argument, saying the disease -- an incurable illness caused by inhaling coal dust -- is easy to distinguish with x-rays.

PHOTO: A man plays on a golf course built on the site of a former strip surface coal mine in Jenkins, Ky., May 20, 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters
A man plays on a golf course built on the site of a former strip surface coal mine in Jenkins, Ky., May 20, 2018.

"It is not caused by smoking,” said Dr. David Blackley, head of Respiratory Disease Studies at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The Labor Department, which manages the fund, considers all potential causes of an applicant’s lung problems before awarding benefits, said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the department's Mine Safety and Health Administration. The approval rate for applications was about 20 percent last year, according to department data.

PHOTO: Sports trophies remain in the window of the abandoned facilities of the Roda coal mine owned by Westmoreland in Appalachia, Va., May 18, 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters
Sports trophies remain in the window of the abandoned facilities of the Roda coal mine owned by Westmoreland in Appalachia, Va., May 18, 2018.

Coal companies are currently required to pay a $1.10 per ton excise tax on underground coal production to finance the fund. That amount will revert to the 1977 level of 50 cents at the end of the year if Congress does not extend the current rate.

The fund has already been forced to borrow more than $6 billion from the U.S. Treasury to finance benefits during the life of the program, according to the Treasury Department. About half of the fund's revenue now goes to servicing that debt.

A bipartisan effort by lawmakers to extend the current coal tax failed this year after the mining association lobbied Republican House leadership not to take it up. Watzman said he was "not at liberty" to identify members of Congress who oppose extending the tax.

Matt Sparks, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office, did not respond to requests for comment.

Lawmakers expect discussion of the tax to resume after the GAO report is released.

PHOTO: Nurse Melissa Muse checks the blood pressure of retired coal miner James Marcum, who has complicated black lung disease, during an exam at Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Va., May 18, 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters
Nurse Melissa Muse checks the blood pressure of retired coal miner James Marcum, who has complicated black lung disease, during an exam at Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Va., May 18, 2018.

“We need to take care of the miners,” said Virginia Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith, who represents a district that has seen one of the biggest surges in the disease. “We first need to have all facts on the table.”

The mining association and large miners such as Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Consol Energy are already pressing their case, according to Congressional lobbying records that show the black lung fund among the subjects discussed in their recent meetings with lawmakers.

Peabody CEO Michelle Constantine declined to comment. Arch spokesman Logan Bonacorsi and Consol spokesman Zachary Smith did not respond to requests for comment.

PHOTO: Binders and boxes store the database of black lung cases gathered by Dr. Brandon Crum at United Medical Group in Pikeville, Ky., May 22, 2018. Dr. Crum first noticed the massive number of x-rays of complicated black lung in the region.Brian Snyder/Reuters
Binders and boxes store the database of black lung cases gathered by Dr. Brandon Crum at United Medical Group in Pikeville, Ky., May 22, 2018. Dr. Crum first noticed the massive number of x-rays of complicated black lung in the region.

The upcoming GAO report was requested in 2016 by Democratic Congressmen Bobby Scott of Virginia and Sander Levin of Michigan and has undergone review by the administration of President Donald Trump, who has focused on slashing regulation to help the coal industry.

White House spokeswoman Kelly Love did not respond to a request for comment on the administration’s position on the excise tax.

The fund pays benefits to miners severely disabled by black lung in cases where no coal company can be found to directly provide support. That typically occurs when a company has gone belly-up -- an increasingly common scenario as the nation's utilities shift to cheaper natural gas and cleaner solar and wind power.

Some 2,600 medical claims were transferred from companies to the fund in 2017 due to bankruptcies, according to a Congressional report this year.

PHOTO: Retired coal miner Kennith Adams, who has complicated black lung disease and lives connected to an oxygen supply 24-hours a day, inhales medicine while his wife Tammie keeps him company, at their home in Princeton, W.Va., May 17, 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters
Retired coal miner Kennith Adams, who has complicated black lung disease and lives connected to an oxygen supply 24-hours a day, inhales medicine while his wife Tammie keeps him company, at their home in Princeton, W.Va., May 17, 2018.

Government research shows the incidence of black lung rebounding, despite improved safety measures adopted decades ago -- such as dust screens and ventilation -- which had nearly eradicated the disease in the 1990s.

In February, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirmed 416 cases of advanced black lung disease in three medical clinics in rural Virginia from 2013 to 2017 -- the highest concentration of cases ever seen. It also confirmed a 2016-2017 investigation by National Public Radio that found many hundreds more cases in southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

“This is history moving in the wrong direction,” said Kirsten Almberg, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Almberg authored an analysis of Labor Department data showing that nearly half the 4,679 benefits claims from miners with the worst form of black lung disease were made since 2000.

Ex-miners and regional health experts blame the resurgence on longer hours spent in deeper parts of old, played-out mines, along with lax safety measures and the use of heavy machines to blast through layers of rock.

“We didn’t use curtains. We rarely used ventilators. We thought we were invincible,” said Greg Jones, who left mining in March and now coordinates benefits applications at the Tug River Black Lung Clinic in Gary, West Virginia.

PHOTO: Flames, steam and exhaust rise from the Suncoke Jewell coke making plant, which burns coal to make coke which is used to make steel, in Oakwood, Va., May 19, 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters
Flames, steam and exhaust rise from the Suncoke Jewell coke making plant, which burns coal to make coke which is used to make steel, in Oakwood, Va., May 19, 2018.

Brandon Crum, a radiologist at the United Medical Group in Pikeville, Kentucky, said he has personally diagnosed more than 150 cases of advanced black lung disease since 2016, many in younger miners.

Crum, whose own family worked the mines for a century, said many of these people face a lifetime unable to work, inundated with medical bills.

“Any kind of asset or financial stability you would take away from these miners and their families would be devastating,” he said.

To qualify for benefits, a miner must apply to the Department of Labor, which screens the applications based on medical and employment documentation and then tries to find a responsible coal company to pay the costs.

PHOTO: The sign outside the Bethel Freewill Baptist Church reads Coal Keeps the Lights On But God Has the Power in Virgie, Ky., May 18, 2018.Reuters
The sign outside the Bethel Freewill Baptist Church reads "Coal Keeps the Lights On But God Has the Power" in Virgie, Ky., May 18, 2018.

Jim Werth, the black lung clinic director at Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Virginia, said his clinic has three people on staff helping patients file for benefits. He rejected the idea that the fund was covering undeserving applicants, saying the process already makes it hard to qualify, with coal companies often hiring doctors to dispute medical test results.

William McCool, 64, said it took him years to win benefits.

"I worked 40 years in the mines, and the benefits don't come automatic," said McCool, who wore a grey baseball cap emblazoned with a crossing pickaxe and shovel during an interview at the Mountain Health Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he receives oxygen and physical therapy.

Kennith Adams -- a 62-year old former miner who survived stage-four colon cancer and is now suffering advanced black lung -- had his first application rejected two years ago, he said.

Consol argued he did not work for the firm when he became ill; Adams had worked at the Bishop Coal Company, which later got taken over by Consol.

Consol did not respond to a request for comment.

PHOTO: Train cars filled with coal wait on the tracks outside Williamson, W.Va., May 17, 2018.Brian Snyder/Reuters
Train cars filled with coal wait on the tracks outside Williamson, W.Va., May 17, 2018.

Adams and his wife Tammie are now hoping his latest application -- sent last month -- will be approved to help them pay medical bills of more than $12,000 a month.

"If he doesn’t get his medicine," his wife said, "he doesn’t stand a chance."

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici

News - Coal lobby fights black lung tax as disease rates surge

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CComments

  • snowthrush

    If I were to be the taxpayer, and all of my hard earned tax dollars went only to this cancelled project, hypothetically, I worked twenty years or more of my life giving 18% of my salary for this waste. Now - multiply that by all of the other wastes, EPA comes to mind (fountain pens, the cone of silence, new designer doors, private jet flights, sirens and bodyguards). Government from top to bottom should be ashamed of themselves. Who got my $400,000?

  • BajanQueen

    I wonder if Trump still "Digs Coal'. That was his rallying cry during the Campaign. The crowd roared when he said it. They were all sold a Bill of goods. HRC said coal wasn't coming back, and she would have a training program for all who lost jobs. She was also keep Obama's Lung subsidies. They all booed her. I wonder who's booing now that they will Lose their benefits thanks to Trump.

  • goyakhla ghandhi

    "A bipartisan effort by lawmakers to extend the current coal tax failed this year after the mining association lobbied Republican House leadership not to take it up." ------score another win for big business at the expense of the worker

  • Thomas

    Do rich people suffer from Black Lung Disease?

    If no, then good luck getting any funding from congress. The corporations have already used you up and you are no longer profit but an expense.

  • christina l

    I bet most of them voted Republican too. Republicans want more coal mining and don't give a iota about these sick miners. Their strategy is to take away benefits and just wait for them to die.

  • helicohunter

    Coal companies could enforce safety rules and use technology to reduce lung damage. They could support the miners whose health they destroyed. Instead, they care only about profits. I can't imagine a less ethical industry.

  • Gdawg

    So the mine operators/owners want to get federal subsidies to maintain and open more mines, strip off more mountaintops, destroy thousands of additional miles of streams, foul the air, add to climate change, wreck their workers lungs, AND get some more tax breaks. What could be wrong with that?

  • rightened

    My congratulations to both the writer of this article and the editor who put it on the main page.

    In the current "America First" push with Trump's determination to save the coal industry, THIS is the human reality that we NEED to face.

  • rightened

    And yet, this is the industry that Trump wants to save...

    In the words of Harlan Ellison: "Arrogant stupidity."

  • Not Fancy

    Exponential growth in technology will only continue to eliminate many of the jobs we view as stable good paying jobs right now. We have no choice other than to accept and move forward, or fade away rapidly.
    The plight of the coal miners, their families, and entire coal communities, is sad, as they are/were the rock that truly made our country great. Everything we have now, in this country, would NOT have been possible without them and their multi-generational way of life. Our elected representatives should insure that retired miners keep the pensions and health care they were promised, and provide the necessary resources to help the younger generation to transition beyond the only thing they have known and come to depend on.
    The big coal conglomerates that bought out the smaller companies should be totally liable for ALL of the diseases caused by their business endeavors, past and present, as those businessmen are not stupid, they KNEW what they were buying into, they also entered the business knowing they could weasel out of pension and healthcare liabilities though.

  • ReviewTheFacts

    Coal businesses don't want to pay for the disease their workers contract digging out the coal. Typical. They don't want to insure them, because the rates are so high for black lung. They want to do as little as they can to help their own people.

  • Now Look Sad and Say D'oh!

    "payments have already been too high at a difficult time for mining companies"

    If an industry cannot survive while addressing the job hazards incurred by its workers, perhaps that industry shouldn't survive.

  • mollydtt

    More coal jobs, promises Trump. Healthcare? Not so much.

  • Justice4All

    Say what? According to trump, coal is squeaky clean. This is just more lies by the failing leftist MSM. /s

  • anastasiabeaverhousen

    Another case of corporations and their mostly Republican shills in government working to privatize profits and socialize losses.

    And by the way, the voting records of Congressional Representatives are a matter of public record...what's with this "not at liberty to reveal" nonsense?

  • Denese

    Wait...I thought coal jobs were great? Hopefully no young people are falling for this racket and taking jobs as miners.

  • pfon71361

    These coal miners deserve better than being treated as just means to garner more profits for a polluting, self-serving industry. This $1.10 per ton of coal tax should be maintained, if not increased, to provide the medical help that's obviously being endangered with the impending tax reduction. Coal mining is notably polluting with mercury, lead, and arsenic contamination just a few of the unwanted byproducts. Going forward it would be better to focus on wind, solar and geothermal sources of power. Our children deserve fresh air, clear skies and safe drinking water not allowing the coal and nuclear industries to profit while their future is put in jeopardy.

  • disqus_fn5s2QCDp8

    Does America "like" heroes who get sick? A coal representative is cited as having made a crack about "undeserving applicants": perhaps the standard is that if these guys had really worked as hard as they could, they would have died from exhaustion like John Henry and not become a problem in later life.

    Support these workers. And make darn sure that no one else has to suffer and die the way they are condemned to do.

  • PerchLady

    Let's see what Pruitt has to say about this... And Dr. Rand Paul... And we all need to write our congressmen to insist they keep the current tax in place, not reduce it. (If anything, it should be increased.)

  • SearingTruth

    "Nothing for the poor, because they have been negligent and irresponsible.

    Everything for the rich, because they have been negligent and irresponsible."
    SearingTruth

  • bonehead

    Trump digs Coal !

  • cephalo

    They sure want those coal jobs though! Next thing they will want are beatings. The Democrats are gonna take away our beatings and then nobody will beat us!

  • Summer Tyme

    Black is beautiful. _ DON CON. 😂

  • Colinalcarz

    Most coal in Appalachia is metallurgical coal for making steel not fuel coal to burn for electricity production. If the big steel companies are getting help from new tariffs,they should fund the assistance for the men who sacrificed their health for the steel companies.

  • Lee Thompson

    1. The coal industry needs to look to the future. Coal is 'going away' . . . there are cheaper sources of energy. Miners should be training for safer, healthier, better paying 'renewable energy' jobs.
    2. As to care for black lung, if we were to have single payer health care, the funding for black lung wouldn't be an issue. All the billions that go to insurance companies could/would be spent on actual health care. There should be no profit in health care.

  • Colinalcarz

    “Saving coal” was never about the coal miners. They voted for an administration that promised to preserve their way of life, this is what they got.

  • tahoerover

    And to think they all voted for Trump.......and most of them still support him. Gullible to say the least. Sad story and it is only going to get worse for everyone the longer the liar stays in the WH.

  • Summer Tyme

    The truth is that coal mining is a dead industry.

    It's continued existence is essentially an act of political condescension.

    Right now there are three times as many Americans employed in solar power industry alone, and those jobs are booming.

    Jobs in Coal have been declining since the 1940s there are only about 70,000 left.

    The worst part is it all politicians know this even Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell know it.

    But it's in their political interest to keep lying about it so that's what they do.

  • rontron

    It is always about profit. These articles never state how much profit these companies are paying Wall st. and the upper management. For the miners over 65 I would expect they are covered by Medicare. There is no excuse for the younger ones still working to incur this condition. Apparently there is inadequate Gov't over sight on working conditions.
    The coal produced in these areas is a lower grade bituminous and is responsible for a lot of the worlds pollution. They should just stop mining it.

  • poultrygeist

    Welcome to Trump's America!

  • Nala

    this is what they voted to reinstate! death! there is NO SUCH THING AS CEAN COAL! idiot in the oval office thinks you just 'wash it off' and that makes it clean. there is NO MARKET for a reason!

  • Justice4All

    Got to prop up "clean coal"! Trump promised. SMH

  • JuPMod

    Wow. And these miners mostly voted for Trump who wants to cut 'corners' for coal companies, which includes this black-lung tax. Makes me wonder if any of them realize they made a mistake voting for this guy?

  • TexasVulcan

    It's time for those who produce fossil fuels to pay the FULL COST to society and the Earth.

  • Kaboom Nik

    So the owners of the coal industry stay in business due to their massive subsidies, yet they fight to cut their taxes while their employees DIE because of the work they did?

    I believe Trump would call this "Making America Great Again!"...

    Am I wrong?

  • Kiddbadpatty

    and do the coal miners continue to cheer and whistle for trump? oh wait....they can't really breathe and will be losing the benefits to help them do so through the tax cuts provided to their overseer by the trump administration, that's right.....

  • Imjustdone

    Give these workers what they need in order to survive, it is the humane thing to do.