U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia. Screenshot of video call.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia. Screenshot of video call.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, on Thursday reintroduced legislation to support family members of miners who have died of black lung disease. The Relief for Survivors of Miners Act would ease restrictions to make it easier for miners’ survivors to successfully claim benefits they are entitled to under the Black Lung Benefits Act. 

“It basically guarantees widows their benefits that they have earned,” Warner said of the legislation in a call with reporters. “Oftentimes their husbands gave their lives if they got black lung in helping power our country. It is, I think, our obligation to honor those commitments and we need to frankly get rid of a lot of the hurdles that some of the insurance companies are putting in place to stop these individuals from getting these benefits.” 

First passed in 1976, the Black Lung Benefits Act provides compensation to coal miners who are totally disabled by black lung disease as a result of coal mine employment, and to relatives of coal miners whose deaths are attributable to the disease. The act also provides eligible miners with medical coverage for the treatment of lung diseases to the initial diagnosis.

However, current bureaucratic requirements place what Warner called “unnecessarily strict burdens of proof” on survivors in order to access the benefits to which they are entitled. “We’ve had black lung benefits in existence for a long time, but unfortunately widows of miners who have died from black lung are many times finding it very difficult to get their benefits,” Warner said on the press call Thursday.

The medical term for black lung disease is pneumoconiosis. There are two types of the condition — simple and complicated. Both are caused by exposure to coal dust. 

Because the body cannot get rid of the dust that is inhaled, it stays in the miner’s lungs and builds up over time. The name comes from the fact that the lungs of people with the disease look black. Because the important issue is exposure to coal dust, people who never worked in an underground mine still may develop black lung disease.

While cases have declined following the enactment of the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969, black lung disease became resurgent in the United States in the early 2000s, and it is back in central Appalachia at unprecedented levels. About 20% of long-tenured miners (25-plus years) who were tested in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia tested positive for black lung, according to a 2018 study.

While most people suffering from the disease are over 50, more younger people have been diagnosed in recent years. “Unfortunately we are seeing a dramatic uptick in black lung amongst younger miners, so this is not simply a problem looking back retroactively as the number of mines is going down, it is a current problem as well,” Warner said. 

Warner’s proposal would reestablish a rebuttable presumption that a miner’s death was due to black lung if they were disabled due to pneumoconiosis at the time of death, and it would improve access to legal representation for miners and survivors of miners to ensure that individuals are not unable to secure benefits due to a lack of financial resources.

The legislation also requires the Government Accountability Office to provide a report to Congress on the financial impact of recouping interim Department of Labor payments in order to determine the financial impact of black lung benefits and interim payments on black lung beneficiaries and the government; and it requests that GAO look at other ways to improve the black lung benefits claims process for survivors of miners.

The Relief for Survivors of Miners Act is co-sponsored by Warner’s colleague from Virginia, Sen. Tim Kaine, and Sens. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, and John Fetterman, D-Pennsylvania.

“Virginia’s mining communities have made tremendous sacrifices to power our nation, and the families of miners who lost their lives to black lung disease deserve our support,” Kaine said in a statement Thursday. “This bill is critical to removing unnecessary red tape that has prevented families from accessing benefits and expanding resources to help families secure the support they need.”

It is uncertain how the proposal would fare in the House of Representatives, where a partisan divide frequently stalls legislation introduced by lawmakers from both parties. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said in an email Thursday that he believes reforms for benefits of survivors of miners who had black lung are warranted. 

“I look forward to study[ing] this legislation and any other proposals as they move through the legislative process,” Griffith said. 

Quenton King, a federal legislative specialist with Appalachian Voices, said that the environmental grassroots organization applauds Warner’s “leadership to help ensure that the families of miners who have died from black lung” can still access the benefits they have earned.

“As Appalachia experiences a resurgence in black lung disease, the process for accessing the crucial benefits promised to miners and their families remains excruciatingly difficult,” King said in a statement. 

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org or 804-822-1594.