Left in the dark: Area black lung activists slam McConnell, Griffith after D.C. meetings

Mike Still • Jul 26, 2019 at 8:00 AM

NORTON — Bethel Brock and Jimmy Moore went to Washington, D.C., on Monday and Tuesday to talk to their legislators about funding for black lung victims, and both left questioning two legislators’ commitment to those victims.

Brock, with the Norton chapter of the Southwest Virginia Black Lung Association, and Moore, his counterpart with the Whitesburg, Kentucky, Black Lung Association, were part of a 150-strong delegation planning to meet with federal legislators from Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio about the future of the Black Lung Trust Fund.

Administered by the U.S. Department of Labor, the Black Lung Trust Fund began in 1978 with an excise tax on underground and surface-mined coal to pay health benefits to miners diagnosed with coal miners’ pneumoconiosis — black lung.

The tax rate supporting the fund was 50 cents per ton of underground coal and 25 cents per ton of surface-mined coal until 1986, according to the Congressional Research Service, when Congress boosted the rates to $1.10 and 55 cents. In January, the rate reverted to the 50-cent/25-cent level after Congress did not vote on continuing the higher rate.

That funding cut is what brought Black Lung Association members to the Capitol. Brock and Moore said the delegation got sympathetic receptions for their cause and long meetings with Virginia Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey. Jr., and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown — all Democrats.

Virginia Third District Congressman Bobby Scott, D-Newport News, introduced legislation the same day to extend the $1.10/55-cent coal excise tax rate another 10 years.

When the Kentucky group met with one of their senators — Republican Mitch McConnell — that was when Moore said things hit an obstacle.

“Mitch McConnell came in and stayed 32 seconds and walked out,” Moore said on Thursday. “He was a little arrogant and didn’t show any hospitality. A seven-hour trip just to get 32 seconds of him telling us they have a plan.”

After McConnell left, Moore said, McConnell staffers did not offer much more in a meeting lasting about an hour.

“They didn’t have any answers or details,” Moore said. “They kept saying they have a plan, but they didn’t know what the plan was.”

McConnell press spokesman Robert Steurer offered a different version of the meeting.

“Senator McConnell was glad to welcome his constituents to the U.S. Capitol and facilitate a tour during their visit,” Steurer wrote on Thursday, “In addition to Senator McConnell meeting with the Kentuckians, his staff spent more than an hour with the group listening to their stories and discussing the Senate’s work to address their concerns. The Kentucky miners thanked Senator McConnell and his office for his commitment to ensuring these important benefits are maintained. They also appreciated being provided his office’s direct contact information to assist them in the federal casework issues they mentioned during the meeting.

Steurer said McConnell personally assured the Kentucky group that “we’re going to maintain the fund and that’s a commitment I intend to keep. We’re going to make sure there’s enough money in there to keep this fund going. … Whatever the anxiety you’re feeling about that, don’t worry about it.”

For Brock, the Virginia delegation’s mission hit a snag with Ninth District Virginia Republican Congressman Morgan Griffith.

Brock said that, while the Kentucky members of the group got to see McConnell briefly at his office, the Virginia activists had to settle for a meeting with Griffith staffers at a room away from the congressman’s offices. Griffith did not attend, Brock added.

Griffith on Thursday said he had offered to meet with the Black Lung Association when first asked for a July 24 appointment. After the association later requested a July 23 morning appointment — Tuesday — Griffith said the group was told that he would be en route to Washington, D.C., and not available at that time. He said the association accepted a morning meeting with Griffith staffer Emily May instead.

Griffith said he supports coal and coal miners, adding that he wants to see the black lung health fund continue. He said that the Black Lung Association wants to see the excise tax rate doubled. Brock said that the association wants to see the rate return to its pre-January 2019 level.

“How is it that he’s for miners if he’s not supporting this?” Brock said of Griffith and the Black Lung Trust Fund higher tax rate.

Griffith said he still wants to see Congress gather accurate data, since the number of U.S. coal miners has decreased in recent decades. He said there has been an “uptick” in the percentage of black lung cases, and acknowledged that there has been an increase in actual numbers of cases in recent years.

Steurer said that, despite expiration of the “temporary tax increase” of the past 32 years, “current benefits for our impacted miners and their families have remained at prior levels.”

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