We have a moral obligation to ensure black-lung benefits

A display case at NIOSH shows a normal lung and a diseased black lung, caused by inhaling coal dust and other harmful particles while coal mining.
A display case at NIOSH shows a normal lung and a diseased black lung, caused by inhaling coal dust and other harmful particles while coal mining. NPR

Hal Quinn, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, argued in a recent commentary that a boost to the black-lung fund was an unfair burden on the industry.

It’s worth pushing back on some of his talking points, which we can expect to soon hear parroted back from Sen. Mitch McConnell and our state representatives when they meet in January.

The fund came as a result of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. The money is intended to compensate miners who contract coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP) and a number of other lung diseases, collectively referred to as black-lung disease.

The Government Accountability Office estimates “CWP has been the underlying or contributing cause of death for more than 75,000 coal miners since 1968.”

Quinn opines that it is the absolute wrong time for a tax increase on the coal industry (it is in fact not an increase, but an extension of an existing rate), since it would increase the costs for utilities and U.S. steelmakers, and put coal at a disadvantage against subsidized sources like wind and solar.

Lawmakers considering the fund should look at their own incomes, possibly even the compensation of the CEO of the National Mining Association ($1.3 million in 2016), compared to the basic black-lung benefit rate for a miner or widow, of $644 per month.

Quinn also asserts that the industry faced eight years of assault from an administration determined to punish it.

It is not “unfair” to include in the cold, hard, total economic cost of coal — the costs of environmental cleanup from ash ponds, ruined watersheds and other hidden costs like black-lung compensation and the current and future costs of global warming.

If they are not considered, it amounts to subsidizing coal companies with taxpayer dollars, as Quinn claimed was being done for renewables.

There is an assault or a “war on coal.” It was started by natural gas producers who have been able to offer energy with a market price lower than coal. And to be fair, we have yet to see what the real long-term total economic cost of natural gas is going to be.

And if the previous administration assaulted anything, it was the unavoidable outcomes of global warming — an assault the current administration has foolishly ended.

The commentary also argues that the black-lung fund has more than enough to pay for claims; an egregious piece of misinformation that ignores the fact that claims are extremely difficult to be approved, reportedly fewer than 1 in 10, and cases are under-reported by a factor of 20. The sad fact is the fund is able to cover existing claims only because such a small number are approved.

The Kentucky legislature intentionally made it even harder with this year’s House Bill 2, which limits the number of doctors approved to assess the results of X-rays to substantiate claims. As of September, one compensation judge estimates there were 75 to 100 cases in Pike County pending review by the single authorized state medical examiner who has agreed to do state exams.

The GAO estimates that, “if Congress does not extend the tax, the 50-year-old fund would acquire a $15 billion deficit over 30 years — the same period in which, experts say, more miners will need it.”

The extension of the fund’s tax rate will equal $200 million. That is less than 60 cents annually for each man, woman and child in the U.S. We waste more than that by leaving unneeded lights on.

Consumers want electricity. We accept that coal is used to generate about 30 percent of the electricity we use today. It is absolutely reasonable that consumers pay for the total cost to enjoy the comforts of electricity generated from coal. We have a moral obligation to include the cost of compensation to miners who contract black-lung disease.

Where the coal industry fits into growing efforts to get a more balanced, safer energy approach and to fight global warming will become clearer over time. But for certain, the stress on the industry should not continue to fall on the backs of dedicated hardworking coal miners who built it, as reducing the tax would do.

Reach Jim Brutsman of Harrison County at brutsmanjd@gmail.com.