ACLC NEWS: With Build Back Better Act Threatened & Year-End Deadline Approaching, National Black Lung Association Urges Quick Action to Protect Black Lung Disability Trust Fund
December 20, 2021
CHARLESTON, WV – On Sunday morning, Senator Joe Manchin announced he would not support the Build Back Better Act. Because that legislation contains a four-year extension of the Black Lung Excise Tax, the National Black Lung Association and advocates for miners with black lung and their families urged Congress to act quickly to advance and pass an extension of the excise tax to provide certainty for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. Without congressional action, the excise tax will be cut in half at the end of the year.
“If we don’t get an extension through the Build Back Better Act, then it is going to be a struggle for those of us with black lung to see what happens to the fund. We don’t know what will happen since we don’t have a one year extension. Without the four year extension in this package, we just don’t know what is going to happen. Over the last few years we have been surviving with a one year extension and even with all we have done this year, we don’t have this option,” said Gary Hairston, the President of the National Black Lung Association and a former coal miner with Black Lung in Fayette County, West Virginia. “If we don’t get the Build Back Better Act passed with a four year extension included, I don’t understand what will happen with the fund from here. If this doesn’t pass, I’m hoping COVID doesn’t stop us from coming to see our senators because we don’t seem to be getting the need across through calls as well as we can face to face. Hopefully, things will look up and something can pass this year. We need Manchin to come support the Build Back Better Act with a four year extension.”
Earlier this year, Senator Manchin introduced the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Act of 2021 to extend the Black Lung Excise Tax for 10 years. The excise tax is the only dedicated source of revenue for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund (BLDTF), a fund that is already over $4 billion in debt. The BLDTF pays for medical benefits and provides a small monthly living stipend to coal miners who are disabled by black lung disease, and to their surviving dependents. Over $40 million in benefits from the fund was distributed to families in West Virginia during 2020, and over $162 million was distributed nationally.
“If the four year extension doesn’t pass it is going to affect funding for our benefits. So many companies have filed for bankruptcy, putting a strain on the fund. If we could go to Washington, they would see us and keep our struggle in their thoughts. We are out of sight now and they don’t think about us,” said Arvin Hanshaw, the President of the Nicholas (WV) County Black Lung Association. “It is critical for us to get an extension of the excise tax, a 10 year was preferred but 4 years would give us some reassurance the fund won’t fall further into debt. If the excise tax is cut in half, it will cause it to fall into debt more. We need this extension in the Build Back Better Act.”
Coal miners are facing an epidemic as black lung disease has risen to historically unprecedented levels, hitting a 25-year high in Appalachian coal mining states. The incidence rate of black lung, a preventable disease caused by exposure to coal dust and silica on the job, has doubled nationwide since 2000. 1 in 5 veteran coal miners in Central Appalachia now have the disease. Many miners diagnosed with the disease today are younger and sicker than ever before.
“Allowing the only source of revenue for the trust fund to lapse is really unacceptable. If BBBA doesn’t pass, we urgently need all our lawmakers to get on board to get the ten-year extension bill over the finish line as soon as possible” said Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy and Organizing for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which represents miners in their fight for black lung benefits.
Coal miners who are disabled from black lung, as well their surviving dependents, are entitled by law to modest living and medical benefits. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund pays for these benefits in cases where the miners’ employer has gone bankrupt or where no coal company can be identified as responsible for the miner’s disease.
The trust fund is more important now than ever because a wave of bankruptcies in the coal industry has created increased pressure on the program. It is supported by a small excise tax paid by companies per ton of coal sold domestically, at a rate that was unchanged for more than three decades: $0.55/ ton of surface mined coal, and $1.10/ ton of coal mined underground.
In 2018, the excise tax was reduced and collected at less than 50% of its historic rate for the entirety of 2019, pushing the BLDTF deeper into debt. In 2019 and 2020 the higher, historic rate of the excise tax was reinstated through one-year tax extender bills, but the rate will be cut in half again at the end of this year without action from Congress. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund Act would extend the Black Lung Excise Tax on coal sales at the current tax rates for 10 years. Meanwhile, the Build Back Better Bill that recently passed through the House of Representatives includes a 4-year extension to the tax. A 10-year extension provides longer-term security for the fund, and for the miners who depend on it compared to short-term, one year extensions.