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The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) is applauding the efforts of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) to enact legislation that would make badly needed changes to the federal Black Lung Program.

“These relatively minor (changes to existing law)  will provide important benefits for miners suffering the devastating effects of black lung and their widows,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said.   

Byrd has been working on two fronts—attaching amendments to the Senate’s health care bill and seeking stand alone legislation.

“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 underWest Virginialaw 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.