Coal industry group asks federal lawmakers to cut funding for Black Lung Program, citing COVID-19

I find it appalling that coal companies are attempting to kneecap critical programs that help former coal regions and sick miners during this #COVID19 crisis.

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The National Mining Association (NMA) on Wednesday called on President Donald Trump and federal lawmakers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by cutting a tax used to support coal miners affected by black lung disease, to cut funding to clean up high-priority abandoned coal mine sites, and taking other steps that would financially benefit the coal mining industry.

“To minimize the impact of this crisis on the coal industry, Congress should ensure all businesses have the financial resources necessary to ride out the pandemic,” the March 18 letter says.

One way to achieve that goal, the NMA suggested, would be to make a $220 million cut to the per-ton tax on coal used to fund the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

“Congress should immediately reduce — not eliminate — the [Black Lung Excise Tax] to its 2019 levels,” the NMA wrote.

The letter cites not only the impacts of COVID-19, but also the coal mining industry’s financial struggles predating the pandemic.

It begins by highlighting the fact that coal miners have continued to work during the pandemic, amid business shutdowns that have spread across the United States in a patchwork manner. That same day, COVID-19 cases were confirmed in all 50 U.S. states.

“As the country faces this unique and mounting challenge around the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. coal miners continue to work to provide the resources necessary to power America,” NMA wrote, “while bracing for the severe financial distress facing all sectors across the nation.”

The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was first established in 1978. It pays benefits to coal miners affected by black lung disease when the company responsible for their illness isn’t able to pay.

The trust fund is primarily funded by an excise tax on coal, which was originally set at between $0.25 and $0.50 per ton. In 1986, it was raised to between $0.55 and $1.10 per ton — but those rates dropped back down in 2019 because those terms expired.

It has long been underfunded. “The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and associated excise tax on coal were established so that the coal industry, as opposed to taxpayers in general, would bear the burden associated with providing black lung benefits,” the United States Congressional Research Service said in a January 18, 2019 report on the program. “Throughout its history, the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund has not raised revenues sufficient to meet obligations.”

Coal miners with black lung are thought to be one of the groups at significant risk from COVID-19, which affects the respiratory system.

“Miners also face greater health risks,” Bloomberg reported on March 12. “As many as 20 percent of long-time miners may have black lung in central Appalachia, a historic bastion of U.S. coal production that includes parts of West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. That would be an underlying health condition that could exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus that was officially labeled a pandemic on Wednesday.”

The NMA letter, which was obtained by E&E News, also calls on federal lawmakers to cut funding for abandoned mine cleanups by 50 percent. And it asks Congress to suspend or reduce federal royalty payments for coal leases.

The Abandoned Mines Lands Fund focuses on reclaiming coal mining sites that would have otherwise fallen through the cracks of federal and state law. It funds efforts by state regulators to repair dangerous old coal mining sites, including those that could cause sinkholes and other hazards.

Phil Smith, director of communications and government affairs for the United Mine Workers of America, told DeSmog that the union opposes cuts to both the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund.

“While those who currently receive Black Lung benefits through the trust fund would not be in danger of seeing those benefits cut, it sends a very bad message to them and their families,” Smith said in an email. “How long is temporary? Once these contributions are cut, the industry will argue that they should never be restored.”

The NMA letter prompted a written response from two members of Congress.

“It is disappointing that the coal industry is advocating for policies that would not help the tens of thousands of sick, retired, and out-of-work miners that need immediate help and the communities that are still recovering from the legacy of environmental damage caused by the coal industry,” a letter released today by Rep. Raul M. Grijalva and Rep. Matt Cartwright says.

“At a time when the country is facing a pandemic due to a respiratory illness,” they wrote, “it is particularly egregious for the coal industry to advocate reducing the Black Lung Excise Tax, which is essential for providing medical services for approximately 25,000 sick miners.”

I find it appalling that coal companies are attempting to kneecap critical programs that help former coal regions and sick miners during this #COVID19 crisis. We should reject their proposals and keep the focus on helping people and communities being hardest hit by this pandemic. pic.twitter.com/q8N2YZNgUu

Asked for comment, the NMA emphasized that there was “no risk” from the policy they requested to the beneficiaries of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund from a funding perspective. “Even in the midst of this crisis, the industry is working to ensure uninterrupted operations so that the fuel that provides a quarter of the U.S.’s electricity generation remains available,” a spokesperson added in an email to DeSmog.

The energy market has in recent years undergone enormous changes, and coal has gone from generating roughly half of American electricity in 2005 to producing just six percent more of the nation’s power than renewable energy in 2019.

Last year, the U.S. used 966 billion kilowatt hours of coal-generated electricity, according to a February 27 Energy Information Administration report, representing a little less than a quarter of total U.S. electrical generation. Natural gas represented 38.4 percent of the total, while nuclear power made up 19.7 percent and renewables 17.5 percent.

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