SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA (WJHL) – Many retired miners in our region suffer from Black Lung Disease due to years of inhaling coal dust.

A trust fund set up by the federal government has helped these retired miners get disability help for years, but now, that trust fund could be in trouble.

This is affecting retired miners, as coal mining was the backbone of Southwest Virginia for decades.

Many of those who worked in the mines and now need medical and government assistance are afraid their assistance could disappear by the end of the year,

Harvey Hess started working in the coal mines on his 17th birthday.

His time underground took a toll on his lungs.

“I worked 37 years, and I retired in 95. Coal mining’s all I’ve ever done my entire life. I’ve done everything from run a continuous miner riff, general insight, I done it all. I’ve been drawing my black lung now for about a year. I have to wear oxygen 24/7 and I can’t do anything,” said Hess.

Congress created the Federal Black Lung Program through the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 to help coal workers and their families.

An extension placed on the excise tax which funds the benefits is slated to end in December 2020 if new legislation is not approved.

“It’s just like you going to work one day and they say they’re going to cut your pay in half,” said Dean Vance, President of the Black Lung Association’s Chapter One in Vansant, VA.

Vance helps over 30 retired miners with black lung in his area get the help they need through government assistance.

On Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., work is already underway to protect those benefits.

In a statement, Congressman Morgan Griffith said,

“We need to take care of miners with black lung, and I believe Congress will take the necessary steps to do so. To be clear, although the previous higher excise tax rate has expired, benefits have not been cut, and Congress will not abandon our country’s obligation to provide black lung benefits.”

Congressman Morgan Griffith
R- Virginia

Virginia Senators Mike Warner and Tim Kaine are sponsoring legislation to extend the Black Lung Excise Tax for another 10 years.

“This is a very necessary piece of legislation. Obviously the appropriations bill we worked on in December, we extended the disabilities program tax for a year through the end of I thing December 21, 2020, but this is a program that we need to extend so that those who suffer black lung do not have to wonder about if they’ll be able to get the services they need,” said Senator Kaine.

If not passed, retired minors will lose their black lung benefits.

“I’ve been a union man for 50 some years. I’ve worked hard to represent the miners and to uphold the benefits that they’re entitled to. We’ve worked for it. They’re not giving us anything. We worked like dogs for it,” said Harvey Hess.

Senator Kaine said the extension if passed, would not be adding new sources of revenue to taxpayers but will allow the current tax to continue.