Under Trump, Black Lung Disease Has Made A Resurgent Comeback

U.S. Air National Guard Photo by Master Sgt. Culeen Shaffer/Released

The Labor Department is looking to relax standards that lowered the allowable concentration of breathable coal dust.

After years of falling numbers, cases of black lung among coal miners are on the rise again, and the situation is likely to worsen under President Donald Trump, the Bloomberg editorial board wrote in September.

Trump made the coal industry a central part of his campaign in 2016, promising to put miners back to work and flood the world with “beautiful, clean coal.”

But if those miners end up with black lung? They might not get the help they need, thanks to the Trump administration.

In the late 1990s, the incidence of black lung fell to 5 percent among longtime miners, from more than 30 percent in 1960s, after mine-dust regulations were imposed and systems were put in place to monitor miners’ health. But now the incidence is back up to 10 percent. In central Appalachia (Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia), one in five miners are stricken.

In 2014, new mining standards lowered the allowable concentration of breathable coal dust. The Labor Department is looking for ways to relax them. It should be making them stricter — undertaking a “fundamental shift” in the way mine operators control coal-dust exposure, as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine put it in a report earlier this summer.

Making matters worse, the Trump administration is also looking to cut back on funding set aside to help coal miners who are diagnosed with the disease.

With the administration’s help, the disease is making a comeback just as the funds available to support its victims are facing a squeeze. The national Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which provides medical benefits for the afflicted, is poised to fall deeper into debt — mainly because the excise tax on coal companies that finances the fund is about to be cut by more than half.

Coal industry lobbyists are working hard to see that the $1.10 tax per ton of extracted coal is dropped to just 50 cents per ton, arguing that “their business is already struggling and that too many miners with lung problems not caused by coal dust are applying for benefits.”

Both arguments are indefensible. Miners’ health costs are not to blame for the coal industry’s financial troubles; the problem is competition from natural gas, wind and solar power. And black lung disease is easy to distinguish from smoking-related lung damage. It’s outrageous for the industry to shirk its responsibility to help the workers whose health it has destroyed.

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