Ways Congress must support miners with black lung and coal communities

Published 10:18 am Thursday, December 13, 2018

I was born and raised in Harlan County. Like most people I knew growing up, I’ve lost too many family members to black lung disease. My father had black lung, and my brother, and both of my grandfathers. One grandfather had it so bad, I remember times he had to use his hands to push his lungs up to breathe.

As a retired nurse, I spent my career caring for people in eastern Kentucky, including too many suffering from cancer, birth defects, asthma, COPD, and heart attacks linked to air and water pollution from mining, processing, transporting, and burning coal.

Today, with coal jobs and production tailing off, eastern Kentucky’s future is uncertain. I believe it can be bright. A Just Transition requires creativity, commitment, and leadership from all of us. Displaced workers deserve access to health care, income, and a secure retirement. Many also need access to paid, meaningful job training or support for starting their own business. Our whole region needs more good jobs and opportunities to make a decent living – no matter what side of the mountain we may be from, what our age, gender or skin color may be, or what luck we’ve had in life.

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As Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies says, “It’s not easy to build a new economy, but we can start by fixing what’s broke.” Imagine, for example, if the federal government invested in restoring abandoned mine sites. How many jobs could that create for people with skills and experience operating heavy equipment? Or imagine if our elected leaders made a serious commitment to build energy-efficient affordable housing. How many jobs could that create, while also keeping dollars in our community and heat in our homes? And imagine if we built more comprehensive drug-treatment centers. Think of the lives that would help, as well as the jobs it would create.

None of these strategies is enough, obviously. But together they begin to light our path forward.

Unfortunately, instead of supporting our region’s progress, inaction by Congress is harming Kentucky’s miners and mining communities in specific and troubling ways:

Black lung disease is on the rise, yet Congress has chosen this moment to reduce funding for a program that supports sick miners and their families. The rate of black lung cases in Central Appalachia has doubled over the last decade, and the most severe form is at an all time high. But the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is running out of money. And a fee on coal that supports it is scheduled to drop by more than half at the end of December unless Congress acts.

Congressional leaders also have stymied the RECLAIM Act, sponsored by Rep. Hal Rogers. This bill would invest $1 billion and put thousands of people to work reclaiming abandoned mine sites. The money for it already exists and sits in a federal account designated for this very purpose. Under the leadership of Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, Congress has not made the RECLAIM Act a priority.

Congress has passed up opportunities to protect the hard-earned pensions of union miners who worked for companies now bankrupt. According to the United Mine Workers of America, a federal fund that guarantees pensions for nearly 90,000 retired miners is at risk of insolvency. Despite lots of talk, Congress has not acted to solve this crisis.

Recognizing the urgency, many Kentuckians are urging Senator McConnell to do right by our miners and communities before coming home for Christmas. A new report from Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, called “Fixing What’s Broke,” makes the case for action. Eleven local governments in eastern Kentucky – the city councils of Whitesburg, Benham, Morehead, and Jackson, along with Letcher, Knott, Floyd, Pike, Breathitt, Magoffin and Rowan fiscal courts – recently passed resolutions calling on Senator McConnell and other members of Congress to:

Strengthen funding for the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

Pass the bipartisan RECLAIM Act (H.R. 1731) to create thousands of good reclamation jobs and support longer-term economic development initiatives.

Pass the bipartisan American Miners Pension Act (H.R. 3913 / S. 1911) to keep the promise that retired union miners and their surviving spouses get the pensions they earned.

Now is an important moment to support Kentucky’s miners and communities. Please contact Senator McConnell, Senator Rand Paul, and your US Representative through the Capitol Switchboard, 202-224-3121. Urge them to strengthen the Black Lung Fund, pass the RECLAIM Act, and protect miners’ pensions before the end of this year. Let’s do right by our workers and help fix what’s broke.

Joanne Hill is a retired nurse who is originally from Harlan County and now lives in Burnside, Kentucky.