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Advocates for black lung benefits call for Manchin’s help

As the reconciliation bill known as “Build Back Better” remains in congressional purgatory, advocates for coal miners with black lung disease urged Senator Joe Manchin to embrace a long-term extension of the black lung excise tax on coal companies.

At a press conference at the West Virginia Coal Miners Memorial at the state Capitol, leaders from the Black Lung Association announced a new ad campaign and new efforts to encourage Manchin to prioritize black lung benefits. They said their message is simple: “We’re counting on you, Joe.”

The miners and supporters who gathered there emphasized the need for long-term solvency for the fund.

“If Joe can help us, we would like to have this excise tax extended for 10 years,” said Dianna Perdue, secretary for the National Black Lung Association, describing an epidemic of the lung disease that occurs over prolonged exposure to coal dust.

Perdue said her husband has been in a long, long wait for needed benefits after being diagnosed with the disease related to his work in coal mines.

“We need Joe’s help to get us the excise tax to fund the black lung.”

Last year, Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Act of 2021, containing a 10-year extension of the black lung excise tax, but the bill did not advance.

The senator’s communications staff pointed toward that effort today. There was no mention of that policy’s current status among the many in “Build Back Better.”

“Senator Manchin has led legislation to address the black lung excise tax expiration and will of course continue to work to shore up the black lung excise tax to address the needs of our brave miners,” stated Manchin’s spokeswoman Sam Runyon.

When Congress failed to pass any extension of the black lung excise tax before the new year began, that single source of revenue for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund was cut by more than half, advocates said, with the trust fund now losing more than $2.8 million a week.

Gary Hairston

“We need to get Joe on board to do something right now,” said Gary Hairston, president of the National Black Lung Association. “We need Joe on board with us today.”

So miners with black lung, their families and supporters are advocating for Manchin to embrace the budget reconciliation process to bring long-term stability to the fund.

One challenge is that the black lung funding has been among many policy items in the stalled “Build Back Better.” Last December, Manchin announced that the overall spending framework was just too unwieldy for his support.

“I have always said, ‘If I can’t go back home and explain it, I can’t vote for it,’” Manchin stated then. “Despite my best efforts, I cannot explain the sweeping Build Back Better Act in West Virginia and I cannot vote to move forward on this mammoth piece of legislation.”

A day later, the United Mine Workers union expressed disappointment that several policy items in the larger bill could be lost.

“The bill includes language that would extend the current fee paid by coal companies to fund benefits received by victims of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung. But now that fee will be cut in half, further shifting the burden of paying these benefits away from the coal companies and on to taxpayers,” UMW President Cecil Roberts stated then.

In the months since then, speculation sometimes kicked up that Manchin could be receptive to altered, slimmer versions of the bill. With an evenly-divided U.S. Senate, Manchin’s support would be crucial for passage. But there’s also little sign of movement.

With congressional breaks just ahead, the advocates for black lung benefits worried that time might already be running out.

Courtney Rhoades

“Unfortunately, this is our last chance of even getting this proposed for the new year,” said Courtney Rhoades, black lung organizer for the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.

She recognized Manchin’s sponsorship of last year’s trust fund act, but suggested that political reality means bolstering the trust fund as part of a larger bill like “Build Back Better.”

“We know from a policy standpoint that there are not a lot of options right now of trying to get things done by a single bill. That bill is not going to move. It’s going to have to be included in a package. As of right now, this is the only package that has been proposed that would fit this bill.

“So if it’s not passed in this bill prior to everyone leaving session to go campaign for the new election then we are going to be looking at the fact that in 2022 we will not have a multi-year extension.”

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