McGarvey, coal miner advocates renew push to ease burden of proof for black lung benefits

Advocates also raise alarm on amendment to defund proposed silica protections

By: - December 14, 2023 11:47 am

Miners have suffered more exposure to silica dust as more rock must be removed to reach dwindling coal seams. (Getty Images)

Kentucky’s lone Democrat in Congress is joining a renewed push to expand benefits for coal miners suffering from black lung and their families and to ease the burden of seeking such benefits. 

Rep. Morgan McGarvey of Louisville during a Wednesday afternoon press conference with coal miner advocates from several states said he’s introducing the Relief for Survivors of Miners Act, a version of legislation put forth in recent years that seeks to help families of coal miners presumed to have died from black lung receive monthly payments. 

Morgan McGarvey
Morgan McGarvey (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)

“Our area of Appalachia, we powered the energy revolution in America,” McGarvey said. “We paid for it in everything from the majesty of our mountains, to the very lives, health and safety of our miners. The hard working men and women who went every day, fulfilling their promise to go to work to make sure that we were succeeding as a country. And we’ve got to be there for them.”

Legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 removed presumptions that assumed if a coal miner had worked a set number of years in an underground coal mine and was “totally disabled” by pulmonary or respiratory issues but had not technically been diagnosed with black lung, also known as coal miner’s pneumoconiosis, the miner could receive benefits. That presumption also applied to survivors of coal miners receiving monetary payments through the federal black lung program. 

Quenton King, a federal liaison for the environmental advocacy nonprofit Appalachian Voices, said it’s often an “adversarial process” to receive black lung benefits, particularly if a coal company would be on the hook for paying such benefits. 

“The coal companies are allowed to say that the miner doesn’t have black lung, or they didn’t get it from this coal company, they got it from a different one,” King said. “The coal companies don’t want to pay the bonds or the fees for that miner’s benefits.” 

McGarvey’s bill would also expand legal resources available to miners and their families who lack the financial means to hire an attorney in applying for benefits. The legislation would also request the federal Governmental Accountability Office to look at ways to improve the process of applying for black lung benefits. 

Advocates also touted another Democrat-backed bill recently introduced by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, that would, among other things, restore cost-of-living increases for those receiving black lung benefits. 

“The current monetary benefits are insufficient. They have not kept up with the recent inflation rates,” said Courtney Rhoades, a black lung organizer for the Kentucky-based Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “ Because younger miners are diagnosed with black lung, they face the difficult decision of whether or not they remain in the mines and continue to be exposed to coal and silica dust or having to learn how to survive on a significant pay cut.” 

Both bills are being introduced again after previous versions failed to gain GOP co-sponsors, something that King said advocates are “trying every day” to achieve. 

“We appreciate all the senators working on this,” said Gary Harriston, the president of the National Black Lung Association who lives in West Virginia. “We do need Republicans to try and help out.” 

Amendment would defund newly proposed black lung protections

Coal miner advocates also have been raising concerns over an amendment added by a Republican congressman last month that would defund proposed enhancements to protections for coal miners against toxic dust that causes pneumoconiosis.

Rep. Scott Perry talking to reporters at the Capitol Sept. 19, 2023 (Jennifer Shutt/ States Newsroom)

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pennsylvania, added an amendment to an appropriations bill in November by a voice vote — meaning no record of individual votes were recorded to add the amendment — that would strip funding from the Mine Safety and Health Administration to implement a proposed rule that would lower the exposure limit to silica dust for miners, something coal miner advocates have been calling for. 

Such dust is often created when modern mining machines chip into quartz to reach coal seams releasing the respirable dust into the air, coupled with coal dust present in mines. Breathing that excessive dust leads to pneumoconiosis that cripples lung capacity and leads to death. 

In recent decades, a surge of black lung — including more severe cases of the disease — has hit Appalachian coal miners with diagnoses coming decades earlier in life than before. A study last year confirmed that miners’ exposure to silica dust is driving the recent epidemic of severe black lung. 

King said Perry’s amendment is “extremely disappointing. Thousands of coal miners and other miners stand to benefit from silica protection.” 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Perry said the amendment was added because MSHA’s proposed rule would apply to all mines, not just coal mines, under its jurisdiction, a “one-size-fits-all approach” that understates the costs mines will have to bear from the rule and doesn’t have specific provisions to ensure stricter dust enforcement is applied “only where necessary to improve safety.” 

“To be clear, this proposed rule is just the latest attempt by Democrats to close America’s mines and end the livelihoods of miners – which will be the outcome if this proposed rule goes into effect,” said spokesperson Lauren Muglia in an email. 

Chelsea Barnes, the director for government affairs and strategy for Appalachian Voices, said her and other advocates haven’t received any commitments from Republican senators that the amendment would be blocked. 

“We want to see bipartisan opposition to this amendment because we know that things can happen in negotiations, that compromises are made, and we could see something really, really disastrous end up in that bill,” Barnes said. 

Kim Lyons, a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, contributed to this report. 

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Liam Niemeyer
Liam Niemeyer

Liam covers government and policy in Kentucky and its impacts throughout the Commonwealth for the Kentucky Lantern. He most recently spent four years reporting award-winning stories for WKMS Public Radio in Murray.

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