Editorial: Coal Industry Owes It to Miners to Fund Black Lung Healthcare

By the Editorial Board: June 6th, 2018 (3)

To paraphrase the late country singer Jerry Reed, executives got the coal mines, miners got the shaft. Coal company honchos are trying to dig the shaft even deeper by fighting against paying taxes the financially troubled Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. Even by the industry’s shameful labor history, this is incredibly cruel.

The trust fund pays medical bills for coal miners too sick to work. An estimated 25,000 miners and dependents rely on the fund to pay doctors and hospitals and help with other expenses when they’re too sick to work. Coal companies pay a $1.10 per ton tax on underground coal production to finance the fund, which is roughly $6 billion in debt and has never been fully funded during its 40-year history.

The tax is set to roll back to the 1977 level of 50 cents a ton by 2019, thanks to coal industry efforts and Republican House members who acceded to the industry’s lobbying. If the tax cut is not reversed, there won’t be enough money left to cover combined black lung benefit payments, administrative costs and debt repayment, says a report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

Taxpayers have made up the trust fund’s shortfall in the past, including in fiscal year 2017 when it borrowed about $1.3 billion from the U.S. treasury. The government forgave a $6.5 billion debt in 2008, and the fund currently is $4.3 billion in debt to taxpayers. The GAO says that by 2050 the fund might have to borrow more than $15 billion to stay afloat.

This is playing out against the background of a temporarily re-energized coal industry and a fresh epidemic of black lung disease, particularly in southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.

While the industry repeatedly shortchanged the disability trust fund, the average annual wage for chief executives from 2004 to 2016 grew as much as five times faster than the pay for lower-level workers. Sweat equity doesn’t help pay black lung insurance premiums.

Coal company executive John Eaves rolled St. Louis-based Arch Coal out of bankruptcy in 2016, and was paid $9.8 million last year for leading the restructured company. That was bested by Glenn Kellow’s estimated $15 million stock bonus for leading St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, the world’s largest privately owned coal company, through bankruptcy.

The GAO report proposes options for addressing the fund’s debt problems, including increasing the tax on coal companies by 25 percent from the current levels. With coal production declining, the industry would probably object. Too bad. The miners’ health is part of the price of doing business.

Industry executives owe a debt to the miners who made them rich. They should adequately fund health care for miners who are suffering the vicious toll of black lung disease.

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