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Local advocates head to Washington to protest changes to black lung fund

Mike Still • Updated Jun 20, 2019 at 2:27 PM

NORTON — Southwest Virginia advocacy groups are organizing a Washington, D.C., trip in July to demonstrate against changes to the federal black lung benefits funding structure.

Caleb Gore, a volunteer with the Appalachian Voices office in Norton, says the planned trip, in conjunction with Southwest Virginia Black Lung Chapter 2, comes as miners face a cut in how the coal industry pays a federal excise tax on coal when it is first mined and sold.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the excise tax rate was cut in January by more than 50 percent for underground-mined coal, from $1.10 to 50 cents a ton, and surface-mined coal, from 55 cents to 25 cents a ton.

According to the Department of the Interior, annual excise tax revenue has already dropped from $644.9 million in 2007 to $431.7 million in 2017.

Gore said the excise tax rate cut means that less money is going into the federal fund covering benefits for miners suffering black lung disease. That cut comes as miners are seeing increased black lung disease rates.

Part of the increase, Gore said, comes as coal operations have been mining thinner coal seams than in previous decades. Mining in those seams involves heavy concentrations of rock, Gore said, and miners are breathing in higher rock dust levels as a result.

Gore said that in recent years, miners experiencing black lung are typically younger than in years past.

“We’re looking at a $15 billion shortfall over the next 30 years,” Gore said of the excise tax cut and increased numbers of black lung victims.

Appalachian Voices and Southwest Virginia Black Lung are planning a three-day trip starting July 16 to hold a rally and contact congressmen about the black lung fund issue. Both organizations are trying to raise up to $10,000 to cover transportation, food and lodging while the group is in the nation’s capital.

“The Sierra Club has helped with some funding for the trip, and the Appalachian Citizens Law Center is getting involved,” Gore said. “We’re trying to give priority on the trip to miners.”

For more information, contact Appalachian Voices’ Norton office at (276) 679-1691; Southwest Virginia Black Lung organizers Bethel Brock at (276) 467-2576 or Bethel.Brock@yahoo.com; or Vonda Robinson at (276) 219-5925 or VondaNRobinson@hotmail.com.

Southwest Virginia Black Lung Chapter 2 will also hold its July monthly meeting on July 2 at 3 p.m. at the Norton Community Center. Jim Worth of the St. Charles Black Lung Clinic will be the keynote speaker.

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