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Biden signs bill ensuring increases to Black Lung Disability Trust Fund

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Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Washington — A new law permanently restores a recently expired excise tax rate increase on coal production, which will help fund health care and other benefits for coal miners who have black lung disease.

President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 on Aug. 16, four days after it was approved in the House by a 220-207 margin. The bill gained Senate approval Aug. 7, when Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tiebreaking decision in a 51-50 vote.

A provision of the act restores the excise tax, which supports the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, to an elevated rate. Black lung is another name for coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – a deadly condition caused by exposure to respirable coal mine dust. Although mine operators generally are responsible for paying black lung benefits, the fund helps finance benefits for miners and eligible survivors or dependents when no responsible mine operator is identifiable or the operator is out of business.

The original excise tax rate increase expired Dec. 31. In January, the House Education and Labor Committee issued a press release stating that the disability fund’s debt stood at about $5 billion and could grow to roughly $15 billion by 2050.

Mine workers, labor groups and other industry stakeholders are applauding the provision. Restoring the original tax rate “will give victims of this insidious disease, their families and their survivors some peace of mind that the benefits they so desperately need will never be reduced,” Cecil Roberts, president of United Mine Workers of America, said in a press release.

Speaking during an Aug. 4 press conference, Vonda Robinson, vice president of the National Black Lung Association, said black lung benefits are “really gold to the miner.”

This includes Robinson’s husband, 56, who was diagnosed with black lung at age 47 and still encounters medical costs Robinson estimates at $7,000 a month. He’s also facing the possibility of a lung transplant. “This is really important to us and to every coal miner, because you can see that it actually doesn’t get any better,” Robinson said. “It gets worse.”

 

Black lung also is expanding in scope. More than three times as many coal miners were identified as having black lung disease from 2010 to 2014 compared with 1995 to 1999, the Department of Labor Office of Inspector General notes in a November 2020 report.

Further, a recent study by researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago found that the lung tissue of contemporary coal miners contains higher levels of respirable crystalline silica dust than was found in miners of past generations, which may contribute to a spike in black lung cases.

“It’s no doubt in my mind that miners are going to require care for their diagnosis, treatment and rehab of black lung disease well into the future, unfortunately,” Robert Cohen, director of the UIC Mining Education and Research Center, said during the press conference. “And we think that that’s going to be going on for years to come.”

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