black lung

Sydney Boles / Ohio Valley ReSource

Just three bankruptcies of American coal companies have added more than $800 million in costs to a federal government program that funds health care for disabled coal miners, the Government Accountability said in a report released Wednesday.

The report comes after a 2018 analysis by the same agency which found the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund faced significant financial challenges, and had borrowed taxpayer money to cover necessary expenses nearly every year since 1979. This new research shows that coal company bankruptcies have been a significant factor contributing to the fund’s financial debt, and lax oversight from the Department of Labor is partly to blame.


Adelina Lancianese

Lynn Estel Stanley was the kind of coal mine foreman who wanted to know if there was a safety problem, and would always be the one to go fix it himself. He was also the kind of miner who refused to slow down, even when his men told him he was overexerting himself. But when he was 69, his doctor told him it was time to stop for good.

Stanley wasn’t surprised. He knew he was getting sick. “It kept getting progressively worse and harder to breathe to the point where I just couldn’t do my job, I didn’t have enough oxygen,” he said.

He had watched coal-miner relatives die of black lung, a form of lung disease caused by breathing in coal and rock dust. Particulates lodge in the lungs, causing the tissue to harden and restrict the amount of oxygen that can enter the bloodstream.


Sydney Boles / Ohio Valley ReSource

Officials with the Mine Safety and Health Administration met for the first time with miners’ health researchers Wednesday in a new partnership designed to discuss ways to better protect coal miners from the dust that causes black lung disease. In future meetings, representatives from the two agencies will discuss recommendations made by the National Academy of Sciences in a 2018 report on monitoring underground coal dust exposure. That report said the coal mining industry needs a “fundamental shift” in the way it controls exposure to coal and rock dust.

“A common theme that occurred throughout the National Academy recommendation is the need for an industry, labor, academia, manufacturers and government to work together on an investigation, training and solution related to respirable coal mine exposure,” said MSHA Director of Office of Standards, Regulations, and Variances Sheila McConnell. “This partnership comes directly from those recommendations.” 

Adelina Lancianese

A new report from the nonpartisan budget watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense says that an expired coal tax is effectively a taxpayer subsidy for the coal industry. The analysis reflects a growing concern about the fiscal health of a federal fund that supports tens of thousands of disabled coal miners.

The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was established in 1969 to pay health care expenses for certain disabled coal miners and their dependents. It is supported by coal companies, which pay a limited tax on each ton of coal they remove from the ground. Early this year, Congress allowed the tax to decrease by more than 50 percent. The Government Accountability Office found the move would leave the fund $15 billion in debt by 2050, and would likely require a bailout by taxpayers.


Vivian Stockman and Southwings

Appalachian surface coal miners are consistently overexposed to toxic silica dust, according to new research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and surface mine dust contains more silica than does dust in underground coal mines. 

The research released Tuesday is the first to specifically analyze long-term data on exposure to toxic silica dust for workers at surface mines. The work reveals that while attention has been trained on a surge in disease among underground coal miners, surface miners are similarly at risk of contracting coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease. 

 


The Mountain Air Project

Isabella Back, 18, pulls her jacket tight around herself as she crosses the gravel driveway. “So we’re going about 10 feet from my house to my dad’s workshop,” she says, and pushes through a door in a big, red barn.

The Kona, Kentucky, shop is crowded with cluttered work tables and hulking machines, and the sound of whirring and grinding fills the air. The shop smells of paint and other chemicals. Back’s dad, Rod, started this metal fabrication shop after he got laid off from coal mining. He mostly makes signs for local businesses. He waves a friendly hello.


Sydney Boles | Ohio Valley ReSource

The recent bankruptcy of Murray Energy is likely to significantly increase the debt of a struggling federal trust fund that supports disabled miners’ health care expenses.

According to court filings, Murray Energy could be responsible for as much as $155 million under the Black Lung Act and general workers’ compensation, but testimony from the Government Accountability Office shows that the company only offered $1.1 million in collateral to the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. That means the struggling fund will likely have to take on at least some of that liability.


screenshot from Amy McGrath for Senate YouTube

Two retired coal miners have sent a cease and desist letter to the U.S. Senate campaign of Amy McGrath. The retirees were shown in a campaign ad for the candidate.

Randy Robbins and Albrow Hall say they didn’t know a video of them would be used for a political attack advertisement until after it was already being broadcast.

The ad featured a reenactment of a 10-hour bus ride to Washington D.C. by coal miners advocating for black lung benefits.


Adelina Lancianese

Democratic members of Congress introduced legislation Tuesday to provide additional funding for coal miners suffering from black lung. The bills came as a contingent of Appalachian miners afflicted with the disease lobbied lawmakers for more support. 

“It doesn’t only take your health. It takes your identity,” Barry Johnson said of the disease. Johnson is a fourth-generation coal miner from Letcher County, Kentucky, who made the trip to Washington with his oxygen tank in tow. 

A bill introduced in the House by Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia and Rep. Alma Adams of North Carolina would restore a tax on coal that supports the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides benefits for some 25,000 disabled miners and their families.

Sydney Boles

Dozens of Appalachian coal miners plan to visit Capitol Hill Tuesday to ask lawmakers to bolster funding for the black lung disability trust fund, which miners depend upon when no responsible company can be identified to pay for needed health care.

The fund is already billions of dollars in debt, and that will likely grow as more miners develop the disease and coal companies pay less into the fund. Coal companies pay a tax to support the trust fund, which pays monthly income and health benefits for miners who were disabled by the preventable and deadly occupational disease.


Howard Berkes/NPR

Harold Sturgill was disabled by black lung disease when he was 58 years old. Now he advocates for disabled miners.

“When it comes to the mining companies, and it comes to the worker, it’s still all about production,” Sturgill said. “They could care less about me, how much dust I suck in, or how long I’m going to live, because somebody else is there to take my place.”

Sturgill worries that without meaningful action to protect miners, his son, who is also a miner, will contract the same illness. “A man’s gonna feed his family whether it kills him or not,” he said.


Jessica Lilly, WVPB

Robert Bailey started mining coal in southern West Virginia’s McDowell County in the 1970s. By the time he retired from the Patriot Coal Company 36 years later he was already having trouble breathing. By the time I first interviewed Bailey in 2014, his black lung disease had become severe.

“I’m in the process of a lung transplant,” he explained. But an insurance company was protesting further treatment. “It’s a struggle just to receive the help that you still need,” he said between puffs of air from an oxygen tank.


Becca Schimmel

One of the Kentucky mine workers charged in a coal dust fraud case last year wants to change his “not guilty” plea to “guilty,” a possible indication that the defendant will cooperate with prosecutors in the case.

Court documents show defendant Ron Ivy, a former employee of Armstrong Coal, is scheduled to change his plea on April 1. Ivy pleaded guilty last year along with eight others charged in an indictment. 

Western Kentucky District U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman says the case remains open and active.

Becca Schimmel

A federal prosecutor announced new charges against a senior coal company official for conspiring to falsify the required monitoring of coal dust. The case comes amid a surge in cases of black lung disease and widespread allegations from miners that cheating on dust monitors is common in the mining industry.

Western Kentucky District U.S. Attorney Russell Coleman unsealed a new indictment Wednesday against the former manager of all of the western Kentucky mines belonging to the now-bankrupt Armstrong Energy coal company. Glendal “Buddy” Hardison is charged with conspiring to defraud the United States and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency in charge of enforcing dust controls in coal mines.


Sydney Boles

Nancy and Rich Potter had the kind of marriage that made other couples jealous. He’d take her on spontaneous trips. She’d wear her Daisy Dukes just for him.

Joyce Birman said her late husband, George, made a terrible first impression. It was his apology for it that made her fall for him, hard.

Vickie Salyers’ husband, Gene, loved hunting and fishing, but he loved being a father and grandfather most of all.

Potter, Birman and Salyers all married eastern Kentucky coal miners. And like countless Appalachian women before them, they each watched as their loved ones became ill.


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