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Federal funding for miners with black lung isn’t keeping up with inflation, according to a new report

Coal seam at Peabody's North Antelope Rochelle Mine
Peabody Energy

A new report shows that benefits for people with black lung have not kept up with inflation. This funding can be a lifeline for miners in coal-producing states like Wyoming.

The benefits are mandated by a federal law that created the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund. Coal miners who have black lung disease are entitled to monthly payouts from the fund if their employer went bankrupt or their disease cannot be tied to a specific company. Supporters of the benefits say it is a small thank you to miners who have succumbed to the terminal respiratory disease that is linked to particles like silica that come from coal production.

“The coal miners gave us electricity to power America,” said Vonda Robinson, vice president of the National Black Lung Association. “As much as they sacrifice their lungs and their health, we really need to take care of them.”

The concern is the benefits are tied to the federal pay scale, rather than the cost of inflation. Right now, a single miner with black lung gets paid out a little over $738 a month, up from $144.50 in 1969. But according to a new report commissioned by two Appalachian coal miner advocacy groups, that number should be closer to $1,200 if it were adjusted for today’s inflation.

“The status quo is not sustainable for miners with black lung or their families,” said Chelsea Barnes, the legislative director for Appalachian Voices, one of the groups involved in the study. “As the cost of food, medicine and rent goes sky high and their benefit levels remain stuck in the past. Cost of living adjustments are essential for stability in the economy. Get the benefits paid to miners – benefits earned by sacrificing their lungs in the mines [that] are deeply outdated.”

Barnes added that many miners with black lung are young and too sick to work – so these payments are their income.

“Every day without action is another day where another family of a miner with black lung will have to make a difficult choice to pay their bills or buy groceries,” she said.

The report urges the U.S. Congress to tie the benefits to the cost of inflation, rather than the federal pay scale. A bill that would increase the benefits has been waiting to be heard by a Senate committee since last August.

In Wyoming, about 2,700 miners receive black lung benefits totaling about $290,000. In our region, the highest number of miners receiving the benefits are in Colorado – with 7,200 miners and families receiving $996,876.

Notably, the highest number of miners receiving benefits are in Appalachian states. Although coal production is almost triple in Wyoming compared to West Virginia, the latter has 132,702 miners receiving benefits. Experts largely attribute this to the type of coal mining being conducted. In Wyoming, it is all surface mining, the last underground coal mine closed in 2021, and in states like West Virginia, there is still a lot of underground mining.

“In the Appalachian states, you're dealing with much smaller mines having to dig deep underground,” Barnes said. “And that's putting miners directly more in contact with the dust. And in western states, it's a lot more machinery doing the work. They're doing more work with fewer miners to begin with.”

In Wyoming, 4,455 coal miners were employed in the state producing about 41 percent of the nation’s coal, whereas in West Virginia 11,511 coal miners were employed, producing about 13 percent of the nation’s coal.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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