Retired miners and their families demonstrated in London last week in attempt to get the attention of Sen. Mitch McConnell and stop a planned cut to the tax that pays for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
But with the holiday approaching and about 25 percent of the federal government shut down because of the president’s demand that $5 billion be set aside for a border security wall, it is looking less and less likely that the issue will be addressed before the current law sunsets on December 31, cutting the coal excise tax by 55 percent.
Richard Yonts, 78, of Jenkins, worked for 35 years underground and another 10 in prep plants and other jobs around the mines. He has black lung, but said there are many in much worse condition than he is.
Miners’ treatment is covered by insurance under Black Lung Disability. He said they are being told by federal authorities that their disability benefits won’t be affected by the reduction in the excise, but the National Black Lung Association isn’t accepting that.
“It doesn’t take a genius to know if the funding stops, they can’t pay the benefit,” Yonts.
The Kentucky Chapter of the National Black Lung Association travelled to McConnell’s London Field Office last week to make their position known. Yonts said miners were disappointed but not surprised by the response to their demonstration. Yonts said three members of the Black Lung Association had an appointment to see McConnell’s representative, but the office cancelled it before the group from eastern Kentucky could arrive, saying the senator’s representative would be gone that day. As they were putting a letter in the door, they rang a bell and the person they were to meet with answered.
“ You’re talking about people that make a big salary and get, what, three quarters of their salary when they retire, they’ve got good health insurance, but they don’t care about working people,” Yonts said.
Miners and mine safety advocates say the trust fund must be maintained in order to take care of miners who are just now learning they have the disease, which is caused by coal dust settling in their lungs. Even though there were federal regulations in place to control dust, the regulations were often skirted, and advocates say they weren’t strict enough to begin with.
According to the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health, rates of black lung now are higher than 50 years ago, when the National Mine Safety and Health Act was passed to reduce coal mining deaths and illnesses. It is affecting miners who are younger and have less time in the mines, and has reached epidemic proportion. After being alerted to high rates of black lung by a Pikeville radiologist, NIOSH now says black lung rates are eight times its own estimates. It affects one in 10 coal miners nationally, and one in five in Kentucky and West Virginia.
Yonts said the sudden increase in black lung cases isn’t surprising given that younger miners have worked longer hours as companies maximized profits by paying overtime rather than hiring more people for whom they would have to pay worker’s compensation and other benefits.
Yonts said when he started working in the mines, it was a union job and miners went home after eight hours. Now, he said, any miners still working are working at least 50-percent longer hours, being exposed to dust for that whole time.
“My last job was nonunion at Consol, and I was working 12 hours a day,” he said. “They were working 24 hours a day, seven days a week with three crews.”