Black-lung rates are hitting record highs, which stretches the available funds for the Black Lung Disability Trust even further. That could trigger a restriction in benefits or oblige taxpayers to pick up some of the tab. The fund has already had to borrow more than $6 billion from the U.S. Treasury to keep the fund afloat over the lifetime of the program.
That figure will likely increase if the scheduled tax cut goes through. "Coal companies are currently required to pay a $1.10 per ton excise tax on underground coal production to finance the fund," Volcovici reports. "That amount will revert to the 1977 level of 50 cents at the end of the year if Congress does not extend the current rate." A bipartisan effort to extend the tax failed after heavy lobbying from the coal industry; the industry says coal companies are having a hard time financially, that the payments to coal miners are too high, and that the fund has been abused by people who don't really need it.
Bruce Watzman, head of regulatory affairs for the National Mining Association, said "More often than not, we are being called upon to provide compensation for previous or current smokers," Volcovici reports. Watzman said his opinion is based on discussion with people who administer the program for companies, and a 1989 study by the University of Louisville School of Medicine that found coal miners who were judged possibly eligible for black-lung benefits smoked more than those who didn't qualify. But Dr. David Blackley, head of respiratory disease studies at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says it's easy to distinguish black lung from smokers' lungs on an x-ray.