‘It’s unfair’: Coal miners urge Congress to improve black lung protections and benefits

Coal fuels much of our electricity. The workers who mine for it put their lives and health at risk.

For decades, President of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Cecil Roberts has been fighting to protect coal miners. He spoke with our Washington News Bureau as he came to Capitol Hill this month.

“I’ve been here repeatedly over the years,” said Roberts.

For Roberts and his members, a major focus has been combatting black lung – a lung disease caused by inhaling dust.

“We know what causes black lung,” said Roberts. “We’ve got to make the mines healthier.”

Roberts testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety.

A lot of the testimony focused on concerns with a program Congress created to help miners and their families. The Black Lung Benefits Act from 1976 provides monthly compensation and medical coverage for coal miners who develop black lung.

But critics argue many miners aren’t getting the help they should be getting from the fund, and pointed to years of mismanagement.

“It’s unfair. It needs to be made more fair and that’s coming from the heart of a coal miner who has seen too many people die from this,” Roberts testified.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) is leading legislation to better help miners. The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act is meant to make sure miners who have suffered from black lung and their survivors access the compensation they are entitled to receive.

Casey’s questioning highlighted the ongoing problems with the black lung benefits program.

“In your experience, do miners with the most serious black lung disease always get the benefits they’ve earned?” asked Casey.

“The short answer is no,” replied Dr. Drew Harris, Medical Director of Stone Mountain Black Lung Program.

“It’s important that this fund remain financially stable,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) about the benefits program.

This year, the Biden administration announced a new rule cracking down on silica – a dangerous dust that can lead to black lung disease. Roberts said while the rule is a step in the right direction, he wants Congress to make it permanent.

“We need to make this law because when something’s a rule, it’s not the same as a law,” said Roberts. “Congress needs to act so the next person who comes in as Secretary of Labor who might disagree with this, [doesn’t] put us right back where we were before.”

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