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Rural Blog: Citing costs of pandemic, coal companies ask Congress to reduce black lung coal tax

Citing the economic cost of the coronavirus pandemic, coal companies are asking Congress to let them pay less of the excise tax that pays for miners’ black-lung benefits. The move would force the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a Labor Department program already about $4 billion in debt to the Treasury, to borrow more money from the federal government to remain solvent, Will Englund reports for The Washington Post. The fund borrowed $1.9 billion in fiscal year 2019 alone.

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. (KyForward file photo)

“The National Mining Association asked Congress last month for a 55 percent cut in the excise tax for the trust fund, and a suspension of another fee that pays to clean up abandoned mines,” Englund reports. “Altogether the operators say they could save about $220 million. While the level of taxation to back the fund has fluctuated sharply over the past two years, it currently stands at $1.10 for every ton of coal mined underground and 55 cents for surface coal.”

The fund pays for benefits for 25,000 coal miners, and coal industry lobbyists have long sought to reduce their obligation to pay for such benefits, either by seeking cuts to the excise tax or by making it more difficult for miners to be diagnosed with black-lung disease. “Wes Addington, director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky., . . .said that the push would allow the industry to shed liability for a lung disease it caused,” Englund reports.

Coal-company bankruptcies have already shifted about $865 million in liability for black-lung disability claims to federal taxpayers in recent years, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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