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With Congressional Inaction, Black-Lung Funding Gutted

Black lung is an incurable progressive disease among coal miners that ultimately can make it impossible to breathe. (Jack Corn/National Archives/Wikipedia)
Black lung is an incurable progressive disease among coal miners that ultimately can make it impossible to breathe. (Jack Corn/National Archives/Wikipedia)
December 31, 2018

CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Inaction by a stalemated Congress has gutted important black-lung funding, at a time when the number of cases in West Virginia is rising rapidly.

In spite of promises by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others, a temporary increase in the per-ton tax on coal is set to expire, cutting that tax by more than half. That leaves the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund that Gary Hairston relies on in debt and underfunded.

Hairston has disabling black lung disease, but the mine company he last worked for went bankrupt, ending its legal responsibility. He said politicians talk about supporting miners — until they have to pay for it.

"It almost makes you feel like a soldier sometimes,” Hairston said. “After you go over and fight, then you come back and they say how much they love you, but then everything that you need to get, you have to fight to get."

About 25,000 sick miners and their dependents receive benefits from the fund, averaging less than $600 a month. The industry has said the higher tax is hard for already struggling mine companies. And this summer an officer of the National Mining Association told Reuters the fund has been strained by "previous or current smokers."

But doctors countered it's easy to tell black lung from the effects of smoking. Occupational medicine doctor Carl Werntz said the real issue in Appalachian mines is thinner coal seams, which put more damaging silica in the dust the miners breathe.

="parent">Research has found rates of black lung disease are higher than in decades past, and Werntz said he's seeing it in the lungs of his patients every day.

"I was originally taught that black lung was mostly a disease of people at the end of their career or in retirement,” Werntz said. “We're seeing people with pretty advanced black lung who are in their upper 20s and low 30s. They haven't been coal mining for more than 10 years, and we're seeing them already with really advanced disease."

The tax on deep mined coal will fall from $1.10 per ton to 50 cents per ton. According to federal figures, central Appalachian coal now is selling for about $80 a ton.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D- W. Va., said he had been promised the cuts would be stopped. He called the failure to do so "embarrassing," a sign of poor leadership and "a sad day in America."

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV