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Byrd amendments to black lung law are vital, needed improvements

January 20, 2010
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The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) today strongly endorsed amendments to the federal Black Lung Program in the U.S. Senate’s Health Care bill proposed by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.).

“These relatively minor amendments will provide important benefits for miners suffering the devastating effects of black lung and their widows,” UMWA International President Cecil Roberts said.   

“I’ve seen Sen. Byrd’s actions dealing with black lung described by some as a ‘job-killer’ in the media,” Roberts said. “What a crock. Black lung is the only killer here, not this noble attempt to right decades of wrongs and provide some small measure of comfort to those who will die choking on their last breath as a result of working in the coal mines.”

Under one of Sen. Byrd’s amendments, those seeking black lung benefits would have to prove that they worked in the coal mines for at least 15 years and have contracted a totally disabling respiratory disease. The 15-year requirement is, in fact, more stringent than the level required under West Virginia law to collect state black lung benefits.

Another amendment would restore the ability of widows to collect Black Lung benefits upon the death of their spouse to what the requirements were prior to 1981. Changes were made at that time that required widows to prove that their husbands died of black lung even if their husbands were already collecting black lung benefits at the time of their death. Black lung is always fatal.

“There is a way to end the need for black lung benefits entirely, and everyone knows what it is,” Roberts said. “That is for the coal operators to ensure that the dust levels in their mines are low enough to keep miners from contracting the disease. But that hasn’t happened, and now the disease is once again on the rise.

“The fight to end black lung and provide benefits for those who have it is an ongoing struggle,” Roberts said. “And we still are opposed by apologists for irresponsible coal operators who cry about how much it will cost, just as they have whined about the costs of safety improvements in the mines that have demonstrably saved lives.

“The question of a moral and responsible society cannot be ‘can we afford to do it’ when it comes to helping those who gave their health and their lives so that the rest of us could live better,” Roberts said. “The question must be, ‘what kind of people are we if we do not?’”

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