'They're Crooks': Coal Industry Aims to Exploit Coronavirus Crisis to Cut Payments to Miners With Black Lung
By Jake Johnson
Some of the largest coal companies in the United States are using the coronavirus crisis to pressure Congress to slash the tax that finances the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a lifeline for more than 20,000 miners whose lung disease makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
The Washington Post reported this week that the National Mining Association (NMA), a trade group that represents the biggest U.S. coal operators still standing, "asked Congress last month for a 55 percent cut in the excise tax for the trust fund, and a suspension of another fee that pays to clean up abandoned mines. Altogether the operators say they could save about $220 million."
"While the level of taxation to back the fund has fluctuated sharply over the past two years," the Post noted, "it currently stands at $1.10 for every ton of coal mined underground and 55 cents for surface coal."
Harold Sturgill, a 60-year-old retired miner who was diagnosed with black lung in 1998, said in an interview with the Post that coal companies are "going to try to use this virus thing to stop paying benefits."
"They're crooks," Sturgill said.
“The burden should be on the coal operators,” Bounds said. “They come in our state, they mine our coal, they fill t… https://t.co/T0HWWa2mb7— Sierra Club (@Sierra Club)1586453346.0
The NMA explicitly pointed to the coronavirus crisis in its tax cut request to Congress — which was not included in the stimulus package that Congress passed last month — and labeled the coal industry "essential" to energy production in the United States. A group of Republican senators is currently pressuring the Federal Reserve to allow coal companies to benefit from the multi-trillion-dollar CARES Act.
"As the country faces this unique and mounting challenge around the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. coal miners continue to work to provide the resources necessary to power America while bracing for the severe financial distress facing all sectors across the nation," NMA wrote to congressional leaders. "To minimize the impact of this crisis on the coal industry, Congress should ensure all businesses have the financial resources necessary to ride out the pandemic."
The group, according to the Post, intends to keep pushing for the tax cut in future stimulus legislation.
As EcoWatch reported earlier this week, "in some states like West Virginia, coal mines have been classified as essential services and are staying open during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the close quarters miners work in and the known risks to respiratory health put miners in harm's way during the spread of the coronavirus."
"Nobody knows what this virus is going to do when it gets to this area," Jimmy Moore, a 74-year-old black lung patient in Shelby Gap, Kentucky, told HuffPost. "It's probably just going to wipe us out."
Miners and advocates have long warned about the financial health of the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which is deeply in debt, and repeatedly asked lawmakers to act to ensure that the program is sustainable over the long term. Last July, as Common Dreams reported, a group of around 120 retired miners traveled to Washington, D.C. to demand congressional action to secure the fund's finances, only to be brushed aside by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
Lynda Glagola, chairwoman of the National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics, told the Post that if Congress grants the coal industry its desired tax cut, "the fund will spiral deeper and deeper into debt causing it to become a red financial flag."
"Especially at this time, as the economy is collapsing right before our eyes," Glagola warned, "lawmakers will soon be looking for programs to cut to save money and reduce the national debt and deficit."
In response to NMA's request, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) — chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee — and Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.) wrote a letter to congressional leaders last month urging them to reject the coal industry's "wish-list" and "focus federal resources on the workers, families, and communities that are being hardest hit by this crisis."
"The coal industry is taking advantage of the country's current circumstances to advocate for policies that are completely unrelated to the current crisis, policies that would in fact set back efforts to improve the health and lives of people across the country," the lawmakers wrote. "At a time when the country is facing a pandemic due to a respiratory illness, it is particularly egregious for the coal industry to advocate reducing the Black Lung Excise Tax."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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