An E&E News story published today highlights Congress’s inaction on the RECLAIM Act and the issues facing the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. The story features quotes from retired miner and ACLC client Kenny Fleming (pictured above, left) and ACLC staff Eric Dixon. E&E’s Dylan Brown reports:

Advocates frustrated by inaction on black lung, cleanup bill
Dylan Brown, E&E News reporter
Published: Friday, November 30, 2018

Residents of coal country went to Capitol Hill this week to demand action on black lung funding and abandoned mine reclamation legislation.

More than a dozen people, aided by regional advocacy groups, pushed lawmakers to extend the current rate of the coal production tax for black lung disease benefits and pass H.R. 1731, the “Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More (RECLAIM) Act.”

At the end of the year, the black lung tax rate is set to drop from $1.10 to 50 cents per ton at underground mines and 55 to 25 cents per ton at surface mines.

But a broad tax package that the House will vote on today would postpone that reduction for one year (E&E Daily, Nov. 28). Advocates and workers wanted more.

“It’s a good start, it’s not actually good enough,” said Kenny Fleming, 59, a retired Kentucky coal miner with black lung.

Fleming blamed his fatal, incurable disease on working conditions during his 35 years underground.

“The coal companies need to step up and accept responsibility for using us as machines to further their already lucrative profits,” he said.

The coal industry has lobbied against extending the tax rate, blaming the recent spike in the number of black lung cases on the loosening of benefit eligibility criteria.

Vonda Robinson, a Black Lung Association chapter member from Coeburn, Va., just worries about being able to afford her husband’s $3,800 a month in black lung medicine. Diagnosed in 2013, John Robinson, 47, has the lungs of a 77-year-old, Vonda Robinson said.

“This is not getting better,” she said. “This is [an] epidemic.”

Even at the current tax rate, the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is expected to be $15.4 billion in debt by 2050, according to the Government Accountability Office.

A June report found that returning the fund to solvency requires increasing the black lung tax rate by 25 percent (E&E News PM, June 4).

“That’s the action that Congress should be taking,” said Eric Dixon, policy coordinator for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. “We should be achieving solvency for this really important fund.”

‘RECLAIM Act’

Dixon’s group and others are also championing the “RECLAIM Act,” a bill that would fund coal mine reclamation work leading directly to economic growth.

With 23 Republican and 17 Democratic co-sponsors, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) is shepherding the bill that would more quickly disperse $1 billion already in the Abandoned Mine Land Fund to states already expecting to receive it.

“The people in a vast number of these communities are suffering and have been suffering for far too long, and they will continue to do so until these abandoned mines are cleaned up,” United Steelworkers Local 1123 Vice President Katrina Fitzgerald said.

The coal industry opposes the legislation, arguing the economic focus diverts money that should go toward cleaning up the most hazardous coal sites. The bill has also become a proxy war in the fight to reauthorize the fee that sustains the AML Fund (Greenwire, Nov. 14).

But Dan Fisher, the son and grandson of Illinois miners, said the region has earned the “RECLAIM Act” after supplying the nation with so much fuel.

“We owe it to them … to provide jobs, maybe not for them, but for their offspring when the mines won’t be there,” he said.

E&E News: Advocates frustrated by inaction on black lung, cleanup bill (11/30/2018)