THE COAL MINERS came to town Monday to voice their concern about the black lung program. While they weren't quite sure what to make of the administration's vague talk about saving money by eliminating "questionable claims," they were understandably nervous about the future of a program that, like many others, is currently spending much more than its originators anticipated. Over the next 15 years, the program is expected to cost over $9 billion more than the revenues expected from the tax on coal intended to finance it.

The black lung program's current dilemma is a good example of the difficult issues that must be resolved in compensating workers for a whole host of diseases traceable to hazardous occupations. Who should pay these costs, and how can disability claims be settled swiftly but fairly? In the case of black lung disease, most of the claims have already been settled.The only real question is how to pay for them -- by raising the coal tax or by general taxes.

Black lung, in its advanced stages, is a horrible, disabling condition. In less advanced stages it may be hard to distinguish from the effects of smoking, other lung disorders or merely advanced age. It is also very difficult to determine which of many mine operators who may have employed a worker are responsible for paying for his disease -- the original method intended to finance the program.

After enactment of the program in 1969, Congress became impatient with the initially slow speed of claims processing and the high rate of claim denial. So amendments were passed easing eligibility requirements and creating strong presumptions that miners who had worked for many years in the mines have black lung disease, whatever the evidence. In 1977 Congress also ordered that all previously denied claims be reviewed under the new, more lenient rules.And, belatedly, a tax on coal was levied to cover the costs of the great majority of cases for which no "responsible mine operator" could be determined.

In the rush to review the huge backlong of cases, it is no wonder that, as the GAO has since determined, most of the cases approved lacked substantial evidence of death or disability from black lung. Under the presumptions of the law, there was simply no way to unearth strong enough evidence to deny old cases.

Obviously the time for hard analysis was back in the years when the liberalizing amendments were passed. But since most of the projected program costs arise from cases already approved, there is now no way to save much money except by the highly unlikely, not to say grotesque, action of slashing benefits to the miners and their survivors who currently depend on them.

There are, indeed, several program improvements that should have been in place years ago. Benefits need to be better adjusted to take account of other public and industry benefits. Better medical standards for reviewing claims should be put in place. And chasing after individual mine owners to collect the trivial amount of revenues thus produced is a questionable effort. But since new claims have currently fallen to a quite manageable level, there are no large savings to be found through these improvements.

Ideally, since black lung disease was a direct cost of being in the coal business, the industry should have been made to shoulder the full burden of compensation from the start. Then perhaps mine operators would have been more willing to introduce the safeguards needed to prevent this condition. But that wasn't done, and the choice now is either to levy the burden on the operators currently in business or to leave the taxpayer to pay the cost of past negligence. A sensible compromise would be to pay off old claims out of general revenues and then to raise the coal tax to put the program on a sound basis for the future.