BIG STONE GAP, Va. (WJHL) – Experts say a deadly disease common among coal miners has hit a 25-year high in Appalachia.
Now, miners fear a federal trust fund that sustains black lung benefits for thousands is in jeopardy.
That’s what prompted 150 coal miners and their family members to travel to Washington D.C. to demand congressional leaders take action.
Clyde Hill, 82, Clarence Whisenhunt, 60, and David Mullins, 58, say they worked in Southwest Virginia coal mines for more than three decades before being diagnosed with complicated black lung.
“As a young man, that was my goal, to go into the coal mines and make a lot of money but I didn’t realize at the same time it was killing me… before it was too late,” said Mullins. “It cripples you and disables you to a point where you just can’t do anything.”
Experts say the disease is caused by prolonged exposure to toxic dust.
“The more rock you cut the more dust you get,” said Hill. “You couldn’t even see your hand in front of you.”
Experts say black lung rates have hit epidemic levels across the nation but coal companies don’t want to take the blame.
“They take these men in healthy and make a lot of money off of them but then they don’t want to take care of them when they get sick,” said Betty Hill, the wife of a former coal miner.
Miners who’re able to provide proof that they’re disabled by black lung and their widows are entitled by law to living and medical benefits after what many describe as an excruciating legal process.
“Even after I got the black lung benefits they [the coal company] appealed it three times to Virginia court,” said Hill.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Black Lung Disability Trust Fund pays miners benefits in cases where a coal company goes bankrupt or is relieved of responsibility by a judge.
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Whisenhunt, who is currently being compensated by the department, fears he’s at risk of losing his benefits after Congress failed to extend an excise tax that supports the fund.
“There are so many senators and congressmen that aren’t from coal mining states and they don’t understand what we’re going through,” said Whisenhunt.
The excise tax is paid by companies per ton of coal sold domestically.
The new rate, which went into effect in January 2019, is now less than half of what it has been for more than three decades, experts say.
The miners who traveled to Washington D.C. want Congress to restore the former tax rate with a ten-year extension to sustain the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
“Lawmakers who say they’re friends of coal need to be friends to the coal miners,” said Whisenhunt.
If Congress doesn’t act, a recent Government Accountability Office report projects the fund’s revenue will be unable to cover benefits and administrative costs by as early as 2020.
“You’ve got thousands of miners that will suffer big time if they don’t pass this law,” said Mullins. “I mean that’s their livelihood.”
News Channel 11 reached out to Congressman Morgan Griffith, who represents Southwest Virginia in Washington, and received the following statement
“As a supporter of both the coal industry and coal miners, I believe we have an obligation to protect those miners who contract black lung. I will defend the financial integrity of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. To do so responsibly, Congress must evaluate current costs, current rates, and the projected claims over the next decade.”Congressman Morgan Griffith