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Black Lung cases rise, as federal benefits stagnate

Nadia Ramlagan

The benefit payments miners sick with black lung disease receive are not keeping pace with the cost of living, a new analysis showed.

Current monthly benefits for a miner and one dependent in 2024 are around $1,100, more than $3,000 lower than the average cost of living for a two-person household.

Quenton King, federal legislative specialist for Appalachian Voices, said lagging benefits are especially troubling when miners are increasingly developing black lung at younger ages, largely due to exposure to toxic silica dust.

“Younger miners are getting diagnosed with stage-three black lung, and they’re having to quit mining in their 30s or 40s,” King observed. “They’re losing possibly 20 years, 30 years of work history, and they’re unable to draw down that retirement fund.”

Around 16% of the nation’s coal workers are living with black lung, and after decades of improvement, the number of cases is on the rise again, according to the American Lung Association.

One National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study found modern coal miners, particularly those in Central Appalachia, are more likely than their predecessors to die from coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

King pointed out although the coal industry in on the decline, thousands of coal miners and their families living in Appalachian communities are affected daily by the disease.

“Something I hear from people in the Black Lung Association, one of the heartbreaking things for me is that they’re not able to play with their grandchildren, because they are on oxygen tanks,” King noted.

Appalachian advocacy groups sent a letter to Congress asking for budget legislation prioritizing investments in curbing black lung and supporting miners already living with the disease. Proposed federal legislation, known as the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act, would tie benefit levels to cost-of-living adjustments, rather than the federal pay scale.