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Coal miners question what's next for black lung benefits as Congressional action stalls

Biden bill was supposed to extend a key excise tax
Coal miner
Posted at 5:25 AM, Dec 27, 2021

MATEWAN, WV — Coal. It's been powering homes for hundreds of years.

While many want to reduce the use of fossil fuels, coal use is actually up around 22% nationwide, the first increase in seven years.

But coal miners aren't exactly celebrating this holiday season. In fact, they are concerned that their benefits may soon be impacted by inaction from Washington.


"I first started working in the mines in 1971," said Terry Steele, a retired coal miner from his union hall in Matewan, West Virginia.

Like his fellow miners, Steele isn't celebrating the latest boom with coal.

"For all intents and purposes, coal is gone and on its way out," said Charles Dixon, another retired miner.

No, these miners are frustrated with the black lung benefits program.

"We feel forgotten," Steele said.

Steele is upset with what's being done by Congress regarding black lung disease, a medical condition that can impact miners after working in the mines. Breathing too much coal dust can scar the lungs.

"The majority of the people don't know what coal miners are going through," Steele said.

Under a government program established in 1979, miners like Steele have been promised benefits to compensate miners for their dangerous work, including the risk posed by black lung. Miners who qualify get a monthly check of about $700.

But right now, the future of the program is unclear.

The excise tax on coal companies that funds the program expires at the end of 2021. President Joe Biden's social spending plan, the Build Back Better bill, was set to extend the program for four years. Right now, it doesn't have the votes to pass.

Ron Yates, another miner, says it's already hard enough to get the benefits. He doesn't want limited funds to make it any harder.

"I've been turned down five times for black lung," Yates said.

The miners say Congress needs to address the issue as soon as soon possible. Their union is even beginning to pressure West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — a Democrat who recently pulled his support from the Build Back Better bill — to change his mind on the legislation.

More than 25,000 miners across the country currently receive benefits.

"We aren't asking for much," Steele said. "This was the energy center of this country for a while."