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Appalachia Miners Lobby Congress For Black Lung Disability Trust Fund


On Capitol Hill today, there's a group of visitors - mostly older men, some wheeling oxygen tanks. They're wearing matching black shirts that say black lung kills. They're retired coal miners and the widows of coal miners from Appalachia. They've come here to Washington to try to persuade lawmakers to increase funding for the black lung disability trust fund. That's a pool of money that many miners depend on for health care. The fund is billions of dollars in debt and expected to go further into the red if nothing changes.

Sydney Boles is a reporter with the Ohio Valley ReSource, a public media collaborative. She rode along with the miners on the bus ride to Washington and joins us now from outside the Capitol building.

Hi, there.


SHAPIRO: Tell us about some of the retired miners and their widows that you're traveling with.

BOLES: So these are largely folks who have worked underground for many decades, and many of them are really quite sick. A lot of them are traveling in wheelchairs, carrying portable oxygen tanks. On the bus ride here, I was able to talk to these folks and hear stories about just the effort that it takes to go about daily life. I talked with miner Greg Kelly (ph), who has pretty severe black lung, and his prognosis doesn't look great. He told me that he struggles to complete daily tasks.

GREG KELLY: I got a 6-month-old grandbaby now - weighs 15 pounds. I probably last 10 to 15 minutes just to set him in my lap. But at least I'm still here, though, even though - I thank God for that.

SHAPIRO: Given how hard it is for Greg and these other miners to complete basic daily tasks, it really says something that they came all the way to Washington. What did they tell you about their reasons for making this trip?

BOLES: So the miners and their supporters are asking for an increase for the black lung disability trust fund, which about 25,000 miners depend on for monthly benefits and health care expenses. But they're also just trying to tell senators and Congress people that they're really sick. The black lung epidemic has really skyrocketed in the past few years, and this is a disease that is entirely preventable with the right safety precautions. And so they're also urging their lawmakers to increase regulation so that further generations of miners don't contract this disease.

SHAPIRO: Is this a fund that's paid for by taxpayers, or does it come from the coal companies?

BOLES: This is paid by a tax on coal. Coal companies pay a small per-ton tax on coal that they take out of the ground, and then that fund is used to support health care expenses for miners for whom no responsible company can be identified.

SHAPIRO: What happened that the fund got so deep in debt? - billions of dollars.

BOLES: So I think demand on the fund was higher than was anticipated. The fund was pretty far in debt shortly after its inception in 1977. And so the tax on coal was raised in '81. That was extended again in 2008, and then it was allowed to sunset in 2018. And the Government Accountability Office estimates that if nothing changes, the fund could be $15 billion in debt by 2050, and taxpayers may have to bail out this fund.

SHAPIRO: The coal companies could just pay up. What do they say about why they're not eager to do that?

BOLES: As many people know, the coal industry has really been struggling. The Trump administration has been more favorable to the coal industry, but the industry's still struggling. Industry representatives say that they can't afford to pay a higher rate, that it would put them out of business and a lot more people would end up unemployed in coal country.

SHAPIRO: So far, how have the meetings on Capitol Hill gone? What are lawmakers saying?

BOLES: So I was only able to sit in on one meeting, with Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth. He's the only Democrat in the Kentucky delegation. He was very responsive. You know, he said that he really cares about miners' issues, and he would like to support legislation that would further their means. But he's also not necessarily able to push the legislation all on his own. It really depends on folks like Kentucky senator, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to push this legislation forward.

SHAPIRO: How optimistic are these folks that this'll come through?

BOLES: Miners have gotten used to disappointment. They've been to Washington several times before. This is the largest delegation. But many of the folks are pretty disillusioned with their representatives. But if there's one thing that I know about miners, it's that they're stubborn and they're committed. And so I don't think they'll be giving up until they get what they're looking for.

SHAPIRO: That's Sydney Boles with the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Thanks for talking with us.

BOLES: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sydney Boles
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