By Valerie Volcovici
PRINCETON, West Virginia (Reuters)
As a young man, Barry Shrewsbury dug coal in the West Virginia mines and spent his time off hunting and fishing in the rolling hills
Now, at 62, he struggles to breathe and accomplish basic tasks such as shopping and showering, and relies on a federal fund for ex-miners with black lung disease to pay for an oxygen tank and doctor visits.
“The benefits are a lifeline,” Shrewsbury said between labored breaths after a treatment at the Bluestone Health Center, an industrial-style building set against a leafy landscape in Princeton, West Virginia.
That lifeline is threatened. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is at risk of insolvency due to soaring debt and a slashing of coal-company contributions through a tax cut scheduled for the end of the year, according to a report the U.S. Government Accountability Office plans to publish soon, two sources briefed on the study told Reuters.
That shortfall – which comes as black lung rates hit highs not seen in decades – could force the fund to restrict benefits or shift some of the financial burden to taxpayers, the sources said on condition of anonymity. The fund currently provides medical coverage and monthly payments for living expenses to more than 15,000 people, according to a Congressional report published this year.
The coal industry, meanwhile, is lobbying Congress to ensure the scheduled tax reduction goes forward, arguing the payments have already been too high at a difficult time for mining companies and that the fund has been abused by undeserving applicants.
“More often than not, we are being called upon to provide compensation for previous or current smokers,” said Bruce Watzman, head of regulatory affairs for the National Mining Association.
He said that view was based on “discussions with those administering this program for companies” and initially said he had no research on black-lung benefits paying for smoking-related diseases.
Watzman later cited a study from 1989 by the University of Louisville School of Medicine. The researchers examined 1,000 black-lung benefit applications and found that coal miners judged “potentially eligible” for benefits smoked at higher rates that those who did not qualify.
Medical experts dispute the association’s argument, saying the disease – an incurable illness caused by inhaling coal dust – is easy to distinguish with x-rays.
“It is not caused by smoking,” said Dr. David Blackley, head of Respiratory Disease Studies at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The Labor Department, which manages the fund, considers all potential causes of an applicant’s lung problems before awarding benefits, said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration. The approval rate for applications was about 20 percent last year, according to department data.
Coal companies are currently required to pay a $1.10 per ton excise tax on underground coal production to finance the fund. That amount will revert to the 1977 level of 50 cents at the end of the year if Congress does not extend the current rate.
The fund has already been forced to borrow more than $6 billion from the U.S. Treasury to finance benefits during the life of the program, according to the Treasury Department. About half of the fund’s revenue now goes to servicing that debt.
A bipartisan effort by lawmakers to extend the current coal tax failed this year after the mining association lobbied Republican House leadership not to take it up. Watzman said he was “not at liberty” to identify members of Congress who oppose extending the tax.
Matt Sparks, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s office, did not respond to requests for comment.
Lawmakers expect discussion of the tax to resume after the GAO report is released.
“We need to take care of the miners,” said Virginia Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith, who represents a district that has seen one of the biggest surges in the disease. “We first need to have all facts on the table.”
The mining association and large miners such as Peabody Energy , Arch Coal , and Consol Energy are already pressing their case, according to Congressional lobbying records that show the black lung fund among the subjects discussed in their recent meetings with lawmakers.
Peabody spokeswoman Michelle Constantine declined to comment. Arch spokesman Logan Bonacorsi and Consol spokesman Zachary Smith did not respond to requests for comment.
The upcoming GAO report was requested in 2016 by Democratic Congressmen Bobby Scott of Virginia and Sander Levin of Michigan and has undergone review by the administration of President Donald Trump, who has focused on slashing regulation to help the coal industry.
White House spokeswoman Kelly Love did not respond to a request for comment on the administration’s position on the excise tax.
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