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‘It’s unfair’: Coal miners urge Congress to improve protections, benefits for black lungs

Coal powers much of our electricity. The workers who operate this mine put their lives and health at risk.

For decades, Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), has fought to protect coal miners. He spoke with our Washington News Bureau while visiting Capitol Hill this month.

“I’ve been here a few times over the years,” Roberts said.

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For Roberts and his members, a major priority has been the fight against black lung, a lung disease caused by inhaling dust.

“We know what causes black lung,” Roberts said. “We need to make the mines healthier.”

Roberts testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety.

Much of the testimony focused on concerns about a program created by Congress to help minors and their families. THE Black Lung Benefits Act of 1976 provides monthly compensation and medical coverage for coal miners who develop black lung.

However, critics say many miners are not getting the help they should from the fund and point to years of mismanagement.

“It’s unfair. This needs to be made more equitable and it comes from the heart of a coal miner who has seen too many people die because of this,” Roberts testified.

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Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) is spearheading legislation to better help minors. THE Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act aims to ensure that miners who have suffered black lung and their survivors have access to the compensation to which they are entitled.

Casey’s questioning highlighted ongoing problems with the black lung benefits program.

“In your experience, do miners with the most severe black lung disease always get the benefits they deserve? » asked Casey.

“The short answer is no,” replied Dr. Drew Harris, medical director of the Stone Mountain Black Lung Program.

“It’s important that this fund remains financially stable,” Sen. Mike Braun (R-IN) said of the benefits program.

This year, the Biden administration announced a new rule cracking down on silica – a dangerous dust that can lead to black lung disease. Roberts said that while this rule is a step in the right direction, he wants Congress to make it permanent.

“We have to make this law because when something is a rule, it’s not the same as a law,” Roberts said. “Congress needs to act so that the next person who comes in as labor secretary who might disagree with this doesn’t take us back to where we were before.”