I grew up in Southwest Virginia, and while I currently feel more comfortable surrounded by the hustle and bustle of the big city, I still care deeply about the issues that impact the people of Appalachia. I was fortunate enough to work for two years at a law firm that fought tirelessly to ensure miners and their survivors received benefits from the Federal Black Lung Program. That program was created to relieve the burden of rising medical costs on miners and families of miners diagnosed with pneumoconiosis, known commonly as black lung, resulting from years of breathing in very fine coal dust. The money for this program is collected by the government from coal companies forced to pay for violating safety standards their facilities. The funds are then set aside to keep miners from getting black lung and is then allocated to afflicted miners who have filed for the benefits. Coal mining, a profession distressingly overlooked by both Washington and state capitols, binds together huge swathes of the country – from the middle of Pennsylvania, down to Virginia, and deep into Kentucky.
While the rest of the country has overlooked the Appalachian region for decades, the oversight seemed to boil over into blatant negligence over the course of the last week as the Republican leadership under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) seemed fine with breaking promises that have been made to miners for years. This resulted in a showdown by several Senate Democrats, lead by Joe Manchin (D-WV), who threatened to shut down the government to ensure that 28,000 miners and survivors of miners would not lose their healthcare in April of next year. This is not money from the Black Lung Program, but rather general healthcare and pension benefits set aside to union miners that meet certain criteria set by the United Mine Workers Association under the purview of the federal Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program of Department of the Interior. This promise was made by the federal government to these miners in 1992 with the passage of the Coal Act and continued without risk of ending, until as early as April 2017. Senator McConnell has vowed to continue the benefits at that point, but the fact that it is on the edge of possibly falling through is deeply worrisome.
While this prospect may, in and of itself, be terrible, it is but one instance in a long line where the people who powered our country into the 21st century, created jobs in multiple sectors that used coal as a backbone, and helped feed their families in economically depressed parts of this country, are greatly dismissed, if not ignored. Let’s be honest; for years, these people have been told lies by many of the politicians they thought they could trust. Believing these lies doesn’t make them stupid. It does make them naïve, but it doesn’t make them stupid. This is a region that prides itself on honesty and integrity; the people here take you at your word. So, when Republicans get up and say they support coal families and communities, the miners believe them.
I have been behind the scenes on this issue; I have seen the kind of vicious battle that coal companies are willing to put up so they don’t have to pay a penny to these miners for black lung care while they simultaneously fund coal-country Republicans. It isn’t just the Republican Party’s fault, though. For years, Democrats in the area have said they support miners and want to work hard to make sure they can continue to feed their families, but the state and national Democratic parties have pulled out of coal-country and turned a blind eye to the issues that continue to dominate dinner table discussions in Appalachia. This is evidenced by Virginia, where both parties continue to look toward Northern Virginia and Richmond to win statewide elections, but it is only the Republican Party that still puts on a façade of interest with regard to Southwest Virginia. Election after election, the hard-working men and women of Appalachia are used as pawns for political show while every post-Election Day looks no different than the last. Each new day comes not with the chance of promises being kept, but rather with the likelihood that mortgages won’t get paid, doctor visits won’t happen, and children may go hungry. If this continues, we run the risk of seeing towns abandoned, and a region of the greatest country on earth dwindling away.
Miners in Appalachia can work 6 to 7 days a week on shifts that last from 12 to 16 hours a day. The conditions inside the mines are nothing less than hellish; temperatures are upwards of 75 degrees Fahrenheit in shafts too short to stand upright, there is minimal lighting, and while there tends to be enough water in the mine to lessen the impact of coal dust, it still saturates the air that leads many miners to a slow, agonizing death by suffocation. I have seen the toll this places on the human body and on the loved ones of those impacted. I have seen the need for medical assistance that comes along with being a lifelong miner. And I have seen far too many promises made by politicians that get broken in the aftermath of Election Day. We, as a nation, made a promise to these people. We told them that if they followed the rules, we would provide them with pensions and they did what they were asked. These people value a person’s word and they kept theirs. So, why can’t we keep ours? Why can’t the people of Appalachia get the care and attention they deserve as our fellow Americans?