By Jody Brumage
Throughout Senator Byrd's fifty-one years in the United States Senate, one constant issue to which he devoted great attention was the difficult life faced by the state's coal miners. For decades, West Virginians employed in the mines faced significant challenges including poor safety standards, insufficient pay, and lack of disability benefits, including any aid for victims of black lung. These issues further compounded an already dangerous job, brought to light in many disasters that took place throughout the Appalachian Coalfields, including the Farmington, WV mine explosion of 1968 which killed 78 miners. In the wake of the disaster, Senator Byrd seized the opportunity to improve conditions for miners and obtain increased federal aid and oversight over the coal industry.
Seven months after his speech, Senator Byrd's requests were realized in the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, introduced in the senate on September 17, 1969 by New Jersey Senator Harrison Williams. The bill progressed quickly through both chambers of congress and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon on Christmas Eve 1969. The law provided federal aid for miners who were disabled on the job, called for new safety standards in mines, and imposed fines for violation of safety codes, calling for annual inspections of all mines (twice a year for surface mines and four times a year for underground mines). The law also established the Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration (later renamed the Mine Health and Safety Administration).
However, despite the new federal emphasis on mine safety and regulation, the 1969 law did not provide a comprehensive safety net for miners, especially those who suffered from black lung and similar respiratory diseases. Just two years after the original legislation passed, Senator Byrd was at work seeking increased federal protection and aid for disabled miners. In a letter to President Nixon dated May 10, 1972, Senator Byrd urged President Nixon to support his new black lung amendment, stating that the legislation would "correct the inadequacies, shortcomings, and oversights of that Act [the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969]." However, the battle for black lung benefits dragged on through the summer and into the fall of 1972. A staff memo from September 1972 relates the frustration over the president's lack of support for black lung research funding. However, as the note on the memo from Senator Byrd relates, the conference report for the bill would include the funding provision.
Senator Byrd's persistence paid-off when President Nixon ultimately lent his support to the Black Lung Benefits Act. The act amended the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act by providing $938 million for benefits to disabled miners and closing loopholes which had allowed for the denial of benefits to sufferers of black lung. Upon its passage, Senator Byrd stated that "I have always believed that the American people owe a tremendous debt to the miners of this country, who have labored in the mines during war and peace to provide fuel and energy with which to run this nation. The passage of [the Black Lung Benefits Act] will be another step toward payment of this just debt."