BIG STONE GAP — Cases of black lung — an incurable disease long associated with coal mining — are at their highest levels in 25 years, and on Friday experts came together to address the epidemic.
As many as 1 in 5 central Appalachian coal miners who have worked in mines for at least 25 years suffer from black lung disease, according to research published last year in the American Journal of Public Health. This was the highest recorded level of the incurable respiratory disease in 25 years.
Miners, researchers, physicians, regulators and lawyers convened at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap on Friday for a summit focused on the black lung epidemic. The event — organized by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s office, Stone Mountain Health Services and the college — drew several dozen attendees for a series of panels, question-and-answer sessions and a keynote presentation from retired NPR journalist Howard Berkes.
“The thing that keeps me up at night is that we’ve got an awful lot of miners that are sick, and I don’t think we really know why,” said Emily Sarver, an associate professor of mining engineering at Virginia Tech who studies respirable coal mine dust.
Breathing in toxic mine dust is linked with the disease, which has a medical name of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. Progressive massive fibrosis, called PMF, is the most severe form of black lung and also has a pronounced presence in the region — in 2018, researchers with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health uncovered a historically large cluster of 416 PMF cases at three clinics in Southwest Virginia.
Some of the theories about what could be contributing to the epidemic include an industry shift toward mining thinner coal seams, which involves cutting more rock to access coal, and the resulting exposure to silica dust, which is also dangerous to human health.
“The largest cluster of complicated black lung cases have been found in central Appalachia,” Warner, a Democrat who represents Virginia in the U.S. Senate, told attendees in a pre-recorded video shown at the start of the summit. “Even in 2019, we are seeing so many young miners, folks in their late 30s and early 40s, being diagnosed with complicated black lung. This just isn’t right.”
Warner said more needs to be done at the federal level to protect miners’ health care and pension benefits. He cited a part of the Affordable Care Act, called the Byrd Amendment, as a step in the right direction. This provision made it easier for miners who worked for at least 15 years in underground mines to claim federal black lung benefits.
But on Friday, some miners and advocates said the process of claiming black lung benefits is often lengthy and complicated.
“A really strong claim could wrap up in a couple years, or a really strong claim could take a decade,” said Wes Addington, executive director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.
Addington, who represents coal miners in black lung benefit claims cases, said “it is not unusual” for a case to sometimes take between seven years and a decade to become finalized.
Liable coal companies are usually supposed to cover the costs of benefits except where a company goes bankrupt. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund then provides medical and cash assistance to coal miners and surviving dependents.
Miners are also concerned about the future of the trust fund after it took a deep cut when a lower excise tax rate on coal companies took effect in January.
The rates were previously set at $1.10 per ton of underground-mined coal and 55 cents per ton of surface-mined coal. Congress did not renew these rates at the end of last year, leading to a decrease in January to 50 cents per ton of underground-mined coal and 25 cents per ton of surface-mined coal.
The fund currently has about $4.3 billion in debt, and that figure could grow to $15.4 billion in 2050 due in part to the lower tax rate and declining coal production, according to projections from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Bethel Brock, a retired coal miner from Wise County who has black lung, said the higher rate needs to be renewed to ensure the fund remains solvent and that coal companies are held accountable for the claims of their workers.
“I don’t believe the taxpayers should all have to pay for our disability — the coal company created it,” Brock, 79, said during the summit’s lunch break.
This summer’s bankruptcy of coal producer Blackjewel LLC also overshadowed Friday’s event, which Warner acknowledged in his video. The company employed about 480 people in Virginia before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on July 1. Many employees report they were not paid for work completed in the weeks leading up to the bankruptcy.
“Our current bankruptcy laws are unacceptable,” Warner said. He said the bankruptcy laws need to be reformed to ensure the claims of workers and pension funds are better protected.
Showing miners that they have support from many different people and organizations was a key takeaway from Friday’s summit, according to Theresa Burriss, who moderated two panels and teaches Appalachian studies at Radford University.
“People are listening and paying attention and trying to act on their [the miners’] behalf,” she said. “Some things have fallen through the cracks, I would say.”