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I worked in the coal mines of West Virginia for 34 years. The company I worked for is responsible for my black lung, but they have been able to evade paying for my benefits by filing for bankruptcy.

Like many other miners in our state, I rely on the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund for my monthly benefits and health care. The federal trust fund pays for the benefits of miners when the company isn’t able to, and the majority of this funding is funneled back into our communities.

More than $40 million from the trust fund was distributed to families in West Virginia last year. However, the revenue source for this fund — an excise tax on coal — will be cut in half at the end of this year, if Congress fails to extend it at its current rate.

In September, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund Act of 2021, to protect the trust fund by extending the excise tax for 10 years. Just last week, House Democrats included a four-year extension of the tax in the Build Back Better Act.

I am urging Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., to sign on as a co-sponsor to Manchin’s bill, and I’m asking both West Virginia senators to fight for miners with black lung in the infrastructure and Build Back Better negotiations.

Black lung is a growing epidemic in central Appalachia, with data showing one in five veteran coal miners has the disease. Furthermore, the rate of miners with progressive massive fibrosis, the most severe form of black lung disease, is the highest ever recorded, and even young miners are being affected before they’ve worked a full career.

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I was diagnosed in 1983 with black lung but had to keep working to provide for my family. I never knew my symptoms would progress as they have, and now I have to fight to protect my benefits. We won’t always be here but, while we are here, all we are asking is to be guaranteed the benefits we were promised.

Take care of us now.

I’ve visited Washington, D.C., several times to urge our legislators to try to maintain the excise tax and protect the solvency of the trust fund. A 10-year extension of the tax would provide a more stable source of revenue to the fund, and miners would be less worried about how our benefits will be funded in the new year and in years to come.

Coal companies aren’t the ones that mine the coal, the miner does. We kept the lights on for this state, and now it is time for our senators to keep us going.

Capito needs to join Manchin in supporting a 10-year extension of the excise tax, and both senators need to voice their support for extending the tax in the Build Back Better Act. Otherwise, the funds that miners with black lung depend on will be cut in half.

David Bounds is the vice president of the Fayette County Black Lung Association and lives in Fayette County with his wife, Karen.

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