Mc­Connell owes min­ers an an­swer

Lexington Herald-Leader (Sunday) - - Local -

Ken­tuck­ians bring­ing a plea for vic­tims of black lung to Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell will have a hard time be­ing heard above the clamor of coal in­dus­try money — more than $2 mil­lion poured into fed­eral races the last two years by Al­liance Re­sources CEO Joe Craft alone.

Un­less Congress acts, a tax on coal pro­duc­tion that pays med­i­cal and other costs for black lung vic­tims and their de­pen­dents will be slashed at the end of this month.

The in­dus­try op­poses re­new­ing the tax at its cur­rent rate. If the in­dus­try wins, the Black Lung Dis­abil­ity Fund would lose 55 per­cent of its fund­ing. The trust fund, al­ready $4.3 bil­lion in debt, would have to bor­row more from the Trea­sury to meet its obli­ga­tions.

In other words, tax­pay­ers would as­sume the coal in­dus­try’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to min­ers who con­tracted a fa­tal res­pi­ra­tory dis­ease in work­places where dust con­trol was too of­ten in­ad­e­quate, if not an out­right fraud.

In a cruel para­dox, black lung in its most se­vere form is ris­ing among min­ers as the coal in­dus­try de­clines in Cen­tral Ap­palachia.

Among un­der­ground min­ers in Ken­tucky who have worked 25 years or more, 17 per­cent have coal work­ers’ pneu­mo­co­nio­sis or black lung, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tute for Oc­cu­pa­tional Safety and Health, the high­est rate in al­most 30 years. Among long­time min­ers in West Vir­ginia and Vir­ginia, the dis­ease is even more preva­lent, while the rate in other states is 5 per­cent.

Cen­tral Ap­palachian coal is bring­ing about $79 a ton on the spot mar­ket. Since 1986, do­mes­ti­callysold coal has been taxed at a per-ton rate of $1.10 for un­der­ground and 55 cents for sur­face-mined to sup­port the black lung trust fund. Congress has re­newed that rate, most re­cently in 2008. If Congress fails to re­new it, the tax would re­vert to 50 cents and 25 cents per ton, plung­ing the trust fund $15 bil­lion into debt by 2050.

It’s easy to imag­ine mem­bers of Congress de­mand­ing cuts to black lung ben­e­fits or el­i­gi­bil­ity, as hap­pened in 1980, to curb that spi­ral­ing debt.

Af­ter all, Mc­Connell re­cently said the “sin­gle big­gest dis­ap­point­ment” of his 35 years in the Se­nate is fail­ing to trim So­cial Se­cu­rity, Medi­care and Med­i­caid, which he called “the real driver” of the na­tional debt. He con­ve­niently over­looked the Repub­li­can tax cut of a year ago that will swell the debt by $1 tril­lion over 10 years.

Ear­lier this year, the Na­tional Min­ing As­so­ci­a­tion put out mislead­ing in­for­ma­tion about the trust fund’s health, only to have its dis­in­for­ma­tion ex­posed by a study by the Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice.

About 25,700 min­ers and sur­vivors re­ceive health care and monthly cash as­sis­tance of $650 to $1,300 through the trust fund, which was es­tab­lished 40 years ago for min­ers whose em­ploy­ers no long ex­ist.

Speak­ing in Pikeville in Oc­to­ber, Mc­Connell told re­porters the trust fund would “be taken care of be­fore we get into an ex­pi­ra­tion sit­u­a­tion.”

More re­cently, he’s been mum, omit­ting any men­tion of black lung vic­tims from his pri­or­i­ties for the 115th Congress’ fi­nal days, stress­ing in­stead the need to con­firm more Trump nom­i­nees to the bench and other posts.

A one-year ex­ten­sion of the tax is part of a House tax bill that has lit­tle chance of mov­ing.

The min­ers, their fam­i­lies and friends who trekked to Mc­Connell’s of­fices in Lon­don and Wash­ing­ton, D.C. on Nov. 29 at least de­serve an an­swer.

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