Local black lung resolution is picking up steam in eastern Kentucky

Knott, Letcher, Rowan and Pike counties became the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th local governments in eastern Kentucky to pass a local resolution calling on members of Congress to pass several bills needed to help sick, disabled, retired and unemployed coal miners and their communities. The fiscal courts in Letcher and Knott counties took the unanimous action at their respective monthly meetings on October 15, and Pike and Rowan counties acted the next day.

Advocates say other local governments will soon follow their example. The resolution was first adopted by the City of Benham in Harlan County in September. That action was followed quickly by local governments in the cities of Jackson, Morehead and Whitesburg, and in Breathitt, Knott, Letcher and Pike counties. The resolution is expected to be considered at upcoming meetings in Floyd, Whitley, and Harlan counties, among other places. (Update: the Floyd County Fiscal Court became the 10th Kentucky community to pass the resolution on October 18.)

As Morehead Mayor Jim Tom Trent explained, "The City of Morehead is honored to support this important legislation that will benefit coal miners, their families and communities. With the number of miners affected by Black Lung on the rise, something has to be done immediately to protect these individuals and their families' livelihood."

“I’m pleased to hear that our local government has taken action to support our miners with black lung by calling for an extension of an excise tax which supports the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and backing the RECLAIM Act,” said Patty Amburgey, who is secretary of the Black Lung Association of Southeast Kentucky. “They have now spoken, and I’m hopeful Congress will move forward. The excise tax must be extended to give the miners with black lung a future. And the RECLAIM Act must be supported to bring good jobs to our region, which are dearly needed.”

Amburgey added, “Our miners with black lung are also being harmed by, HB 2, an unfair bill which was passed earlier this year by the Kentucky General Assembly. I’m hopeful that we can get it overturned in the upcoming General Assembly.”

“Black lung is a serious threat to Appalachia, and I'm happy to see our town responded quickly when given the chance to help,” stated Eric Simpson, a Morehead resident and member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. Simpson was among the supporters who brought the resolution to his city council and was present when it passed.

The resolution urges Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, along with the six US Representatives from Kentucky, to strengthen funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. That federal fund provides benefits to miners who worked for coal companies that have gone bankrupt. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that the long-term health of fund is poor, as more miners are getting sick with the disease and more coal companies are going bankrupt. Making matters worse, the fee that provides revenue for the fund, which is paid by the coal industry, is scheduled to drop by 55% on January 1, 2019, unless Congress takes action to keep it at its current level.

The resolution also urges Kentucky’s representatives in Congress to support and help pass the RECLAIM Act (H.R. 1731), legislation sponsored by Rep. Hal Rogers, who represents Kentucky’s 5th District. That bipartisan bill would help revitalize coal communities in eastern and western Kentucky by directing $1 billion to be invested in the reclamation of abandoned mine lands and in long-term economic development initiatives over the next five years. 

Lastly, the resolution urges Congressional support for 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.

An effort to pass these local resolutions across Kentucky is being spearheaded by affected miners, family members, and residents, many of whom are members of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

Advocates point to a similar effort in 2015-2016, when 28 local governments and organizations in four central Appalachian states passed resolutions calling on Congress to pass the RECLAIM Act and Miners Protection Act. That display of public support helped encourage Congressman Hal Rogers to sponsor the RECLAIM Act in the House, and Senator McConnell to introduce a version of the bill in the Senate. Eventually, Senator McConnell also helped to secure health benefits for retired miners, but left their pension issue unresolved.

Now is the time for Kentucky’s leaders in Congress to finish the job by passing these three important Just Transition measures before the year ends.