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On nice days I have a simple morning routine — I sip black coffee on my back deck as I look out at the nearby Miner Soccer Association fields. Even early in the morning, the fields are busy with children kicking balls about, trying to get through a practice before the rest of their day begins.

Although the fields are only a few years old, the site has been Gillespie’s hub for decades, because before there were soccer fields on the site, there was the Little Dog coal mine, an underground pillar and post mine that was the economic engine of the city until it closed in the early 1960s.

My dad worked at the mine. So did my wife’s father and both of my grandfathers. Like the coal mine, none of them lived to see their 70s. Such was the fate of mines and miners.

But as I hear the shouts and whistles from the soccer fields, I am reminded that there is still life in these old mines, and not just from kids playing soccer on reclaimed turf. There are business opportunities, too. Just to the south is Ideal Welding and Fabricating, which produces commercial trash dumpsters and other fabricated metal goods on the former site of the Superior Coal Mine. Other former area mine sites are home to a flooring retailer and a winery.

There is legislation in Congress that seeks to provide funds to encourage such redevelopment of former mine sites. The RECLAIM Act (HR 1731) would provide an additional $1 billion to clean up dangerous, old abandoned mines, with a goal of creating reinvestment in former coal mining communities. The Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement estimates the act would create 4,600 direct jobs, concentrated in the areas hardest hit by coal industry job losses.

Illinois, in particular, would benefit from this legislation as the state would receive an estimated $105 million to be used toward the estimated $137 million needed to clean up the currently identified reclamation work in the state. I imagine this is why several Illinois congressional representatives from both parties have endorsed the legislation — Democratic Reps. Cheri Bustos and Bill Foster, and Republican Rep. Darin LaHood. 

Beyond the economic concerns caused by the shift away from coal are the health concerns caused by decades of exposure to coal dust. Thousands of miners and mining families have been impacted by black lung disease caused by long-term exposure to coal dust — including both of my grandfathers.

A tax on mining was put in place to help provide benefits for those people that have black lung. That tax money goes into the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which workers and their families — like both of my grandmothers — rely on to live and help with medical and other costs. The decline in coal has lead to a loss in revenues to the fund. The current tax level is set to expire at the end of this year and if Congress fails to act to renew the tax that would almost ensure bankruptcy for the fund.

Even more troubling are signs that black lung disease is staging a massive comeback. Government data shows that from 2000 to 2017, the rate of Black Lung disease occurrence has doubled among veteran miners. In certain regions, such as Appalachia, the individual statistics are even worse.

The extension of the black lung tax would ensure that the families of those still working in the mines today and tomorrow continue to have access to help from the fund — just like my grandparents did a generation past.

Both RECLAIM and efforts to shore up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund have gotten stuck in the gridlock of the U.S. Congress.

Communities that once thrived and were the economic and energy engine of our nation are struggling. We owe it to them to do the right thing. Congress has it within their power to both help the workers impacted and the communities they live in survive. Congress should act now.

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Dan Fisher is a retired project manager for a civil engineering company and treasurer for the City of Gillespie, Illinois. Both of his grandfathers were lifelong coal miners.

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