worley hill bethel brock

Worley Hill of Clintwood, center, makes a point to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine during a Tuesday meeting. Listening, in the cap, is black lung advocate Bethel Brock of Wise.

Twenty-five Southwest Virginia coal miners and their families journeyed to Washington, D.C. this week demanding action on legislation to protect black lung benefits.

Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, D-Va., met with the group Tuesday, according to a press release from the senators. Miners traveled from Big Stone Gap, Clintwood, Norton, Wise, Coeburn, Duffield, St. Paul, Haysi, Moneta, Oakwood, Gate City and Pilgrims Knob.

“They discussed the need for action in funding the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which was established in 1978 to pay benefits to disabled miners suffering from black lung disease when the coal companies responsible for paying benefits are bankrupt, closed or otherwise not able to pay,” according to the release.

Warner and Kaine announced they will join Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., to introduce the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act, which they said will “make it easier for miners to access federal black lung benefits, make the benefit claims process fairer, and strengthen the benefits miners receive.”

Later in the day, Kaine participated in a roundtable discussion led by Casey with United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, a medical expert and affected miners and family members in front of more than 100 miners affected by black lung.

The release notes that Warner and Kaine are pushing for passage of the American Miners Act of 2019, which would secure pensions and health care benefits for retired miners. It would also extend the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund tax at $1.10 per ton of underground-mined coal and 55 cents per ton of surface-mined coal for ten years.

In a separate release Wednesday, Appalachian Voices field coordinator Willie Dodson noted that more than 150 miners, widows and loved ones from across the Appalachian region made the trip by bus.

Along with Warner and Kaine, they met with Virginia Congressmen Morgan Griffith, R-Salem and Bobby Scott, D-Newport News. The group also met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, along with senators from Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and other members from Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Dodson reported that “most of the discussions were productive,” but the group was disappointed with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

“McConnell addressed the group for less than 2 minutes and then departed, leaving the group to meet with his staff,” according to Dotson, who noted that McConnell has refused to commit to reinstating the tax and addressing the black lung fund’s solvency.

Dodson wrote that Scott has introduced the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Solvency Act in the House. The bill would extend the black lung excise tax through the end of 2029. It is similar to a provision in the Senate’s American Miners Act.