Editorials

Congress should make good on debts to coal country. Now.

Congress should renew a tax on coal companies that supports medical treatment for miners disabled by black lung and expires at the end of this year. A vicious resurgence of the incurable disease gives lawmakers little choice.

Renewing the tax now would accomplish a dual purpose by clearing the way to return $1 billion to coal-mining regions where the money is already owed, via the RECLAIM Act sponsored by Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky.

Local officials and others from Eastern Kentucky have been pushing to include RECLAIM in a spending bill that Congress must pass by March 23.

The legislation would accelerate payments from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund for promoting economic development and repairing environmental damage from mining in places hardest hit by coal’s decline.

Under congressional rules, that spending (even though the money already is there) must be offset with cuts or revenue somewhere else in the budget. Renewing the black-lung tax would provide the offset.

But, even without that incentive, Congress will have to renew the tax because the incidence of the most advanced form of black lung, progressive massive fibrosis, is rapidly increasing, even among miners with less than 20 years on the job.

“An unacceptably large number of younger miners ... have end-stage disease and the only choice is to get a lung transplant or wait it out and die,” David J. Blackley, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, told The New York Times.

Blackley led research, published last month, confirming the largest cluster of advanced black lung on record in an area that includes Southeastern Kentucky. More than 400 miners seen at three clinics in southwestern Virginia had PMF. Even that probably understates the black lung resurgence.

What’s the industry response? To push for a rollback of dust-control regulations.

Black lung is caused by breathing coal dust and silica released when miners cut through rock and coal.

In response to the upsurge in black lung, the Obama administration in 2014 issued a new rule that lowered dust exposure limits in coal mines and required more frequent air monitoring. The rule has withstood a court challenge by the industry but now is at risk from a sweeping review of federal regulations announced last year by President Donald Trump.

In 1977, Congress imposed a tax on mined coal to provide benefits to black lung victims whose employers had gone out of business. Coal industry bankruptcies and the industry’s decline have put many sick miners in Kentucky in that spot. In 2008, Congress raised the tax to $1.10 per ton of underground coal and 55 cents per ton of surface-mined coal.

At that time, payments from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund were in decline. But because of the disease’s increase, payments from the fund to sick miners and their dependents are again increasing.

An energy trade publication, E&E News, recently reported that Rogers wants to keep the current black lung tax rather than let it return to 1977 levels, as it will without congressional action.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has supported a different version of the RECLAIM Act, should join his fellow Kentuckian in looking out for constituents who sacrificed hugely to keep coal mines running.

Congress should stop stalling and make good on these debts to coal country now.

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