Mine worker advocates have welcomed a new legislative proposal to keep federal black lung disease benefit payments flowing to certain coal miners at current rates for another decade.
But it’s only a temporary fix.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and four other Senate Democrats recently reintroduced legislation that would extend the tax on coal production that pays benefits to miners affected by black lung, their eligible survivors and dependents when no responsible coal operator is identified or when the liable operator does not pay.
The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund that the tax supports, though, has not raised enough revenue to meet obligations throughout its 44-year existence, and its dim fiscal outlook has miner advocates pushing for permanent solutions.
“We know that an extension of the excise tax isn’t the only measure that is needed to address the solvency of the fund, but it is an important first step,” Rebecca Shelton, policy and organizing director at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a Kentucky-based nonprofit law firm that represents coal miners with black lung, said in a statement.
The Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Act of 2021 would extend the black lung excise tax at its current levels for 10 years.
The excise tax rate for surface mining is $0.55 per ton or 4.4% of the sales price, whichever is lower. The excise tax rate for coal mined underground is $1.10 per ton or 4.4% of the sales price, whichever is lower.
“[T]he first step is making sure there is adequate funding for the Trust Fund to pay benefits going forward,” United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts said in a statement released by Manchin’s office. “This bill will do that, and I applaud its introduction.”
National Black Lung Association President Gary Hairston, a Beckley resident and former coal miner who retired in 2002 after developing black lung, appreciates that the bill would keep advocates like him from having to lobby members of Congress to extend the tax at current levels every year.
That’s a burden they’ve had to carry in recent years.
The taxes, which dipped for one year only in 2019 to their original rates of $0.50 and $0.25 per ton of underground-mined and surface-mined coal, respectively, are slated to revert to those rates again at the end of the year, unless Congress acts.
The next step, if the bill passes, would be figuring out the fund’s long-term future.
A 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan agency that investigates federal spending, found that just three coal mine operator bankruptcies from 2014 to 2016 had added $865 million in estimated benefit responsibility to the fund, with more bankruptcies expected.
A 2018 GAO report found that trust fund borrowing may exceed $15 billion by 2050.
Members of the National Black Lung Association, the environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center have urged Congress to permanently extend and raise the excise tax by 25%.
The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank, noted in a policy paper published last month that, in addition to increasing the excise tax by 25%, Congress could approve forgiving debts using appropriations from the general fund or an economy-wide tax on all or most greenhouse gases.
Chelsea Barnes, legislative director for Appalachian Voices, acknowledges that even a 25% increase to the current excise tax might not be sufficient, if greenhouse gas taxes are implemented that further strain the coal industry. That would leave miner advocates seeking tax revenue from another source to ensure benefits for coal miners and their survivors.
“A tax on greenhouse gas emissions or other similar taxes on high-polluting industries would be the appropriate next place to turn, and we’re generally open to any conversation about changes that will ensure miners and their survivors receive adequate benefits,” Barnes said in an email.
But Congress forgiving the fund’s debt would saddle taxpayers with the cost, rather than the industry that caused black lung disease — an option that Barnes rejects.
“Coal companies should be held responsible for caring for these disabled miners to the maximum extent possible,” Barnes said.
“We appreciate what Manchin has done, but we are waiting to see what more he is planning because, if the fund falls into debt, the taxpayers will have to pay it,” Hairston said.
Barnes wants to shift the policy conversation to increasing benefits to miners suffering from black lung.
The 2021 black lung monthly benefit rate for a primary beneficiary and one dependent was $1,040.
“If the benefits for miners were increased, we’d obviously see the fund would be in even worse shape,” Barnes said.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., supports extending but not increasing the tax.
Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., has touted the trust fund’s importance but balked at raising the tax that supports it.
“There needs to be a more efficient solution to continuing this program without raising taxes on a struggling industry,” Mooney said in a statement in August.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., in August condemned the proposal to increase the excise tax by 25% as a “resurgence of the War on Coal, meant to destroy our communities and usher in a radical socialist agenda,” saying the focus should be on reducing cases and growing mining operations to support the trust fund at the same or lower rates, instead.
Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said in an August statement that he supports ensuring coal miners and their families get the benefits they are entitled to but argued against raising the excise tax.
“[R]aising taxes on coal companies that are already struggling to survive is not the answer,” McKinley said. “Doing so will just cause more bankruptcies for the coal industry — and more lost jobs in the coalfields.”