A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Black Lung Trust Fund gets one-year boost from higher excise tax, but experts say more is needed

By Nadia Ramlagan
Public News Service

Congress has voted to increase the excise tax levied on coal companies that provides cash flow for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. But advocates for miners who need the money say the one-year increase isn’t enough to keep the fund from drying up.

The higher excise tax expires December 31. Rebecca Shelton, coordinator of policy and organizing at the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, explains the fund pays coal miners with black-lung disease and their families when the miner’s employer is bankrupt or hasn’t been found responsible for their illness.

Between 1968 and 2014, an estimated 76,000 miners died from black lung disease, according to data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. (Photo by Adobe Stock)

“The excise tax itself funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund,” says Shelton, “which is a trust fund managed by the federal government to pay out healthcare and monthly benefits for miners who are disabled by black lung disease and also, their families.”

According to federal data, more than 25,000 people currently receive benefits from the trust fund.

For more than three decades, the excise-tax rate was around $1.10 for underground coal – then last year, the rate was slashed in half. Shelton believes the temporary increase back to the original amount isn’t enough to keep pace with rising rates of black lung disease.

“One year isn’t enough, as we fight to keep it from increased debt,” says Shelton.

According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, the number of coal miners diagnosed with progressive massive fibrosis – the most severe form of black lung – has been steadily increasing since 1970. The disease is caused by breathing in coal dust.

Shelton says more work is needed to ensure the fund’s security for the future.

“So, we’ve been fighting for many months to ask Congress to reinstate that historic rate,” says Shelton. “Particularly, we’ve been asking them to reinstate it for 10 more years.”

She adds around 75% of all black-lung benefit claims are paid for through the disability trust fund.

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