Black lung benefits should be easier for coal miners to access, lawmakers and advocates say

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) authored an amendment to block funding for a proposed rule to reduce silica dust in mines

By: - December 14, 2023 6:30 am

Exposure to mixed coal mine dust that contains silica — a carcinogen — can lead to the development of pneumoconiosis, commonly known as black lung disease. (Getty Images)

During a Wednesday call with leaders of the National Black Lung Association and other coal miners’ advocacy organizations, U.S. Sen Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Morgan McGarvey (D-Ky.) outlined legislation aimed at helping miners with black lung disease and their families get easier access to benefits. 

But the group also highlighted an amendment to an appropriations bill for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Agency (MSHA) authored by U.S. Rep Scott Perry (R-Pa.). The amendment would potentially halt a rule proposed in June by MSHA to limit the amount of silica dust permissible in U.S. mines, thereby reducing miners’ exposure to silica dust. 

Breathing in silica dust, a byproduct of mining, has been found to lead to black lung disease and other lung ailments, according to MSHA. 

“Unfortunately before MSHA even has a chance to incorporate black lung and other miner advocacy feedback, Representative Scott Perry has followed the lead of coal executives and posted amendments that would block MSHA from implementing the rule,” said Quenton King, of environmental group Appalachian Voices. 

It seems like the companies do everything they can to hold out hoping we’ll die

– Gary Hairston, president of the National Black Lung Association

He added that health experts and miner safety advocates have been asking the federal government for decades to reduce the levels of silica that miners are allowed to be exposed to. In June, prior to the announcement of the proposed rule, Casey and fellow Senate Democrats John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio wrote to the Office of Management and Budget urging movement on the announcement of a new silica standard.

“Thousands of coal miners and other miners stand to benefit from silica protection,” King said on Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Perry’s office said Wednesday that he offered the amendment because the proposed rule applies to every mine under MSHA jurisdiction, not just coal mines. “The one-size-fits-all approach is made even worse by the fact that MSHA failed to include an applicability threshold, ensuring it applies only where necessary to improve safety, and fails to ensure the medical surveillance provisions are employed based on risk,” Perry’s chief of staff Lauren Muglia told the Capital-Star in an email. 

Perry disputes MSHA’s economic analysis of the rule, which he says “falsely claims it will not have a significant impact,” adding that the costs are so understated “that it calls into question the ability and motives of those who produced those estimates,” Muglia wrote. 

“To be clear, this proposed rule is just the latest attempt by Democrats to close America’s mines and end the livelihoods of miners — which will be the outcome if this proposed rule goes into effect,” she added. 

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 established the black lung benefit program that provides monthly payments and medical treatment benefits to coal miners who have been totally disabled by pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease, to the surviving spouses of coal miners who die from black lung disease, and their dependents. Benefits are paid either by the coal mining company that employed the miner or from a trust fund supported by a tax coal mine operators pay on each ton sold. 

But applying for and getting those benefits can be an arduous process, with miners and their families having to prove the miner’s case is serious enough to qualify. And coal mining companies can often complicate the process by disputing miners’ claims.

“It seems like the companies do everything they can to hold out hoping we’ll die,” Gary Hairston, president of the National Black Lung Association, said Wednesday. 

Vonda Robinson, vice president of the National Black Lung Association, said she works with widows to help them access benefits, often a long, draining process that resonates for her personally. “My husband was diagnosed at 47 years old. He’s 57. And he’s looking at a lung transplant. I could be in those shoes one day,” Robinson said. 

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act would strengthen the benefits program by giving miners better access to the medical information used to decide their claims for benefits, and requiring the Department of Labor to reduce the backlog of black lung benefits claims. Black lung clinics would be allowed to use federal funds to help individuals file claims, and cost-of-living benefit increases would be restored.

“Just because there’s been a black lung program for many years, for decades now, doesn’t mean it’s working,” Casey said Wednesday. “So many miners are waiting year after year after they’ve retired, after they’ve given the full measure of their labor, and we have not kept our promise to them and to their families. So we’ve got to change that, and we’ve got to pass legislation to do it.”

The Relief for Survivors of Miners Act would make it easier for surviving family members of miners who die from black lung disease to access benefits. It would shift the burden of proving a miner’s death was caused by black lung disease away from surviving spouses, instead requiring coal companies to prove black lung disease played no role in a miner’s death before disqualifying someone from receiving benefits.

Under the current provisions of the benefits program, survivors have to establish that the black lung disease was a substantial contributing cause of death, which can sometimes be difficult to prove if an autopsy cites a related condition as the cause.

“We know that the coal companies are going to fight back against their workers on this, and this is going to make sure that the attorneys fees are paid for as part of this,” McGarvey said. “We’re going to make it easier for families to get these benefits, not harder.”

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly

MORE FROM AUTHOR