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And let's hear more now about NPR's recent investigation into an increase of black lung disease among American coal miners. As Congress prepares to leave Washington for the year, a tax that funds the federal Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is set to expire. If Congress does not extend the tax, benefits for coal miners could be at risk. As Becca Schimmel of Ohio Valley ReSource reports, the decision is largely in the hands of a Republican Kentucky senator, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How is he?
BECCA SCHIMMEL, BYLINE: About a dozen residents from eastern Kentucky's coal mining region recently crowded into the lobby of the local field office of Senator Mitch McConnell. Morgan Brown said she was visiting on behalf of her father, a retired coal miner suffering from black lung. She's upset, Brown said, to see the coal industry fighting a tax that helps men like her father fight a deadly disease.
MORGAN BROWN: You thought that, you know, these were your employers, they cared about you. But now, in the end of all of it - he's not working anymore - just to see them fight so hard against him is just - just infuriating. You just really feel anger.
SCHIMMEL: Brown's father is seeking benefits from a company he worked for. But more than 25,000 miners depend on the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund because a responsible employer cannot be identified. The fund provides monthly payments and medical treatment to coal miners totally disabled from black lung. An excise tax on coal supports the fund, which is more than $4 billion in debt. Congress roughly doubled the tax in 1981 and renewed it 10 years ago. That rate expires at the end of the year.
A May report from the Government Accountability Office estimates that could put the fund billions of dollars further into debt unless Congress acts. Retired miner Carl Shoupe says if anyone can get Congress to act, it's Kentucky's senior senator.
CARL SHOUPE: Senator McConnell is one of the - he's the most powerful senator in the world - (laughter) - you know, as far as that goes. If he gets on this, he can push it through. And I believe that. I hate to put that on him, but it's the truth, you know?
SCHIMMEL: During an October event in Kentucky, McConnell appeared to indicate he would extend the rate.
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MITCH MCCONNELL: That'll be taken care of before that would get into an expiration situation. It just won't be allowed to be unfunded.
SCHIMMEL: But with less than a week remaining in the legislative session, black lung advocates are still waiting. Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, opposes an extension. He says the tax isn't going away; it's going back to the level Congress originally intended.
TYLER WHITE: Extending current, you know, higher tax rates beyond their scheduled expiration, we kind of look at that as a tax increase at a time when we're still experiencing a significant economic stress.
SCHIMMEL: Despite policy changes from the Trump administration, the coal industry is still suffering in much of Appalachia. White says, if Congress keeps the tax at its current level, they could make it so that coal mines have a hard time staying open. And then there might not be any coal production to tax. Early drafts of a House tax bill included a one-year extension on the excise tax on coal. But the National Mining Association lobbied against the extension, and when a new version of the bill was released, the coal tax extension was gone.
Black lung advocates like Wes Addington feared that might have been the best chance at extending the tax. Addington is deputy director of the nonprofit Appalachian Citizens' Law Center.
WES ADDINGTON: Well, it just shows you how responsive Congress can be to lobbyists from an industry that's on its decline.
SCHIMMEL: McConnell's office didn't say if he intends to extend the tax. It's unclear when or if the extension will come up for a vote.
For NPR News, I'm Becca Schimmel in Bowling Green, Ky.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE OLYMPIANS' "APOLLO'S MOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.