Lawmakers, don’t take easy way out regarding black lung conditions

Of course Congress should safeguard a federal program to help victims of black lung disease. But no amount of money from Washington can do more than ease the suffering of those afflicted by the malady and their families.

So lawmakers also ought to be looking into why black lung, known formally as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, seems to be a serious threat to a whole new generation of miners.

First things first: For various reasons, including financial struggles at some mining companies, the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is in trouble. The program was established many years ago to aid miners who contracted the disease, along with their spouses.

A tax paid by mining companies, based on the tonnage of coal they produce, funds the program. But unless Congress acts quickly, the tax will be reduced by about half. Should that occur, the black lung program may not be able to pay benefits, beginning as soon as 2020. Clearly, Congress should keep the tax at its present level.

But one reason the fund’s resources are strained is that black lung is making a comeback. After many years in which better safety practices and technology seemed to be keeping miners safe from the ailment, black lung cases seem to be increasing in some areas.

As many as one in five miners who have been working for 25 years or more have contracted the disease, according to one study in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. The rate of black lung among experienced miners is the highest it has been in a quarter-century.

There is even worse news: The study of Appalachian miners disclosed that the incidence of progressive massive fibrosis, the worst form of black lung, is the highest ever reported. About 5 percent of miners in our region suffer from it.

Again, the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund needs to be kept solvent. For now, that should be a priority in Congress.

But too often, we tend to react to the symptoms of a problem rather than attempt to eliminate its cause. Federal officials, including lawmakers, should not take that easy way out on black lung. We need to learn why the disease seems to be experiencing a resurgence — and end it.

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