Kentuckians act to support miners with black lung disease

Kentuckians took action today in Washington, DC and London, Kentucky to urge Senator Mitch McConnell and other members of Congress to do right by coal miners with black lung disease, their families and communities.

A delegation of three Kentucky miners walked the hallways of the US Capitol while a group of about a dozen eastern Kentuckians, including several retired miners, met with Senator McConnell’s staff in London, Kentucky. They delivered resolutions, postcards, letters and petitions urging McConnell, Kentucky’s senior senator, to take action before the holidays to strengthen funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, pass the RECLAIM Act and protect the hard-earned pensions of retired union miners.

“We came to lobby on behalf of coal miners, for their black lung funds and pension funds, and also for the broader communities so that areas that have already been hard it can be revived with help from the RECLAIM Act," reported Virginia Meagher of Breathitt County.

“Black lung was in my family before I was ever born. I was raised up in black lung. My father had it, and my two grandfathers,” said Joanne Hill, who grew up in Harlan County, and met with a McConnell representative at his London office. “Until I got old enough to know better, I thought black lung was a cousin, we talked about it so much.”

“I appreciate that we were all able to share our stories and deliver our messages. But the office seemed more interested in addressing individual concerns, rather than talking about the policies that we need Sen. McConnell’s help to pass,” observed Teri Blanton, another Harlan native.

“We discussed the RECLAIM Act, which is sponsored by Rep. Hal Rogers. The staff member told us that Senator McConnell couldn’t do anything because it is a House bill,” continued Blanton. “I said, ‘We know that he has power, if he chooses to use it. We know he could use his power to move this bill forward. And we know that it would do so much good for our communities in Central Appalachia and eastern and western Kentucky. ‘”

So far, 14 local governments in Kentucky – and 33 across Central Appalachia – have passed resolutions calling on McConnell and Congress to act on the black lung program, pass the RECLAIM Act, and pass the American Miners Pension Act. The entities in Kentucky are fiscal courts in Knott, Letcher, Rowan, Pike, Floyd, Magoffin, Breathitt, Knox and Ohio counties, and city councils in Lynch, Benham, Jackson, Morehead and Whitesburg.

Throughout the fall, members of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a grassroots social justice organization, and members of the Black Lung Association of Southeastern Kentucky worked with local elected officials to pass the resolutions, gather petitions and postcards, and amplify the voices of sick, laid-off, and retired miners and their communities.

“With coal miners, it’s a brotherhood. We are close-knit people, even after retirement,” said Carl Shoupe, a disabled and retired coal miner. “I’m thankful and blessed to be able to come down here today and try to help those people who are back home lying in the bed and dying of black lung."

BACKGROUND

Rates of black lung disease have hit a 25-year high in Appalachian coal mining states. Unless Congress takes action before the end of 2018, major financial problems face the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides black lung benefits to coal miners and their surviving dependents in cases where the miners’ employer has gone bankrupt or not been found responsible. This safety net, meant to help alleviate the harm from black lung when coal companies go bankrupt, is itself in danger of insolvency. And the coal excise fee that provides resources for this fund is scheduled to drop by more than half at the end of December 2018, a date set in 1985.

At the same time, the RECLAIM Act (H.R. 1731) has stalled in Congress despite broad bipartisan support. This bill is a powerful step toward revitalizing communities hit hardest by the coal industry’s downturn. The RECLAIM Act commits $1 billion to create jobs while cleaning up abandoned coal mines and waters polluted by them, and to lay a foundation for future economic development and diversification in coal communities. This is a major opportunity for areas that have historically depended on the coal industry for economic stability, to rebuild themselves by creating new, diverse economies on their own terms.

The bipartisan American Miners Pension Act (H.R. 3913/S. 1911), which ensures that the UMWA’s 1974 Pension Plan can continue to provide the pensions retired miners or their surviving spouses have earned. That federal fund also exists to provide pensions to miners who worked for companies that have since gone bankrupt, and it is at risk of becoming insolvent by 2022. If Congress fails to shore up this fund, the obligation to pay pensions for nearly 80,000 retired miners will shift to a different multi-employer federal pension fund. And those cascading debts could put the retirement security of more than 10 million U.S. workers at risk.