Harold Sturgill spent 35 years down in the coal mines, running a ferocious machine that grinds away at the seams of coal and at the rock that encases them, throwing coal dust and silica into the air.

In 1998 he was diagnosed with black lung disease. He kept working underground another 17 years after that, the only job he could imagine doing where he lives in Beckley, W.Va. Now 60, and a widower, he’s retired and concerned his weakened lungs could make him more susceptible to complications from the novel coronavirus.

“I can’t hardly walk down to my basement and come back up without gasping for breath,” he said. With the black lung, “you go on and it gets worse, and it never gets better."

He’s one of 25,000 retired miners supported by the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, a program administered by the Department of Labor and funded by an excise tax on mine operations for every ton of coal they carve out of the earth. But now the coal companies, citing the economic cost of the pandemic, want to cut back the taxes they pay to support the fund and let the federal government pick up the tab.

“They’re crooks,” said Sturgill, who receives a benefit of $686.70 a month from the fund and worries the program might be shut down completely. “They’re going to try to use this virus thing to stop paying benefits.”

The National Mining Association asked Congress last month for a 55 percent cut in the excise tax for the trust fund, and a suspension of another fee that pays to clean up abandoned mines. Altogether the operators say they could save about $220 million. While the level of taxation to back the fund has fluctuated sharply over the past two years, it currently stands at $1.10 for every ton of coal mined underground and 55 cents for surface coal.

The idea didn’t make it into the $2.2 trillion stimulus bill, but the association plans to keep pushing for it.

If the coal companies succeed in getting the tax cut, the black lung trust fund would need to borrow more money than it already does from the federal government to maintain benefits. It’s currently about $4 billion in debt to the Treasury.

The NMA — which includes among its members the six largest coal operators not currently in bankruptcy and smaller firms — points out that coal is hardly alone in seeking government help, and it says that retired miners would not see their benefits or health care reduced.

“We are committed to continuing to work for the American people and economy and are not asking for a bailout,” wrote Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the association, in an email. “We do hope, however, that the government is willing to work with us to find ways to ease the economic burden on the industry during this time so we can continue to offer uninterrupted operations in support of the country.”

The association wants a solution that will “provide meaningful relief, and will safeguard the health and safety of the workforce as well as the environment,” she wrote.

But advocates for those with black lung see a real danger to the trust fund from the coal companies’ proposal. And doctors say that those whose lung function is impaired by the disease, also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, are likely to be more vulnerable to covid-19.

“The Fund will spiral deeper and deeper into debt causing it to become a red financial flag,” said a statement forwarded by Lynda Glagola, chairwoman of the National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics and a respiratory therapist at the Lungs at Work clinic in McMurray, Pa. She said she worries that a fund already billions of dollars in debt will become a cost-cutting target.

“Especially at this time, as the economy is collapsing right before our eyes, lawmakers will soon be looking for programs to cut to save money and reduce the national debt and deficit,” she said.

Wes Addington, director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky., works with recipients of the fund. He said that the push would allow the industry to shed liability for a lung disease it caused. “It’s incredibly tone deaf,” he added.

The trust fund was set up in 1969 by President Richard Nixon to provide benefits to retired miners whose former employers had gone out of business. It also pays for lung-related health care. Companies that are still operating are required to pay into the fund, as well as provide benefits to their own retirees.

But bankruptcies during an era of coal decline have increasingly limited liability. The Government Accountability Office found last year that between 2014 and 2016, three major bankruptcies — of Alpha Natural Resources, James River Coal and Patriot Coal — had resulted in $865 million in liabilities being transferred to the trust fund.

“What we’re seeing here is nothing less than a gaming of the system,” said Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) at a hearing in February.

In a recent phone interview, she said she was struck by the wheezing she could hear among the miners in the hearing room that day. The push by the companies to reduce their tax burden is “irresponsible,” she said, “but very unfeeling when you look at what’s happening all around us.”

David Bounds spent 34 years running a loader in coal mines. Sometimes, he says, the dust was so thick he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face. Today, at 72, he’s retired, in Oak Hill, W.Va. He says he’s barely able to climb the three steps from his backyard grill to his kitchen without stopping to gasp for breath.

It kills him, he said, to see his wife carrying in the groceries and not be able to help her.

He worked for five different coal companies, all of which sought protection in bankruptcy, and today he and his wife are supported by a black lung trust fund benefit of $1,030.10 a month.

“The burden should be laid on the coal operators,” he said. “They come in our state, they mine our coal, they fill their pockets up, they declare bankruptcy. They leave with all the cash and all the money, and there’s no money to pay the miners.”

The coal operators’ most vocal advocate in Congress is Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W.Va.). In a March 19 letter to congressional leaders, he argued that coal was critical to the country’s continuing electricity supply. (Some analysts dispute that.) “It is imperative that the coal industry and its workers receive temporary economic relief,” without jeopardizing beneficiaries, he wrote. “The administration and Congress must take all necessary steps to support the coal industry.”

In a statement released Wednesday, he said: “Like many parts of our economy, coal miners are feeling the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, from idling mines to stop the spread of the virus among workers to reduced demand at home and abroad. Given the challenges facing coal even before this crisis hit, it’s important that the federal government take steps to ensure we limit the damage done to this critical industry.”

Reps. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.) and Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) were sharply critical of what they called the “particularly egregious” request by the mine association. “The coal industry is taking advantage of the country’s current circumstances to advocate for policies that are completely unrelated to the current crisis, policies that would in fact set back efforts to improve the health and lives of people across the country,” they wrote on March 20.

Strikingly absent from the debate has been Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), whose state of Kentucky is the fifth-largest producer of coal and who has in the past been an ally of the coal operators.

A McConnell spokesman, Robert Steurer, declined to answer specific questions about the senator’s position. “Senator McConnell is working hard to help get resources to families and employers quickly and has been proud to partner with President Trump to support our dedicated coal workers,” Steurer added in a statement.

“He’s kind of playing it both ways,” said Dewey Clayton, a political scientist at the University of Louisville. “He wants to give miners the idea he’s on their side, but I don’t think the coal companies fear they have lost an ally.”

Led on this issue by Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, the Democrats in the Senate have been solidly against the proposal, Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said. McConnell, he suggested, has been weighing the political cost of support.

“I think it’s something he’d rather not deal with,” Smith said. “There are a lot of people in eastern Kentucky who have this disease, and they vote.”

Billy Johnson of Summersville, W.Va., was at the February hearing on the GAO report. He worked at the mines for 39 years on the surface, loading coal into freight cars. He, too, has black lung and receives benefits from the trust fund.

The 65-year-old worked for a company called Terry Eagle, and for Patriot, and for Blackhawk after it bought out Patriot, and for Consol.

“They just try to get out of the obligation after you’re all wore out,” he said. “I can’t breathe of a night. I do all right, but I got a short wind.”

The incidence of black lung disease has been on the rise since the 1990s, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculates that about 10 percent of working miners today suffer from it. Robert Cohen, a doctor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who specializes in black lung disease, says that new technology allows the miners to cut through the rock above, below and around the coal seam, and that the silica that gets thrown off is 20 times more toxic than coal dust.

John Cline, a small-town lawyer in Piney View, W.Va., has been battling the coal companies for years. Unlike a normal workers’ compensation system, he said, the black lung laws require a miner to go to court to prove their disability, as well as that black lung is the cause. “Miners were limited by their resources; the companies were not,” he said.

The Department of Labor doesn’t adequately monitor the remaining coal companies to be sure they have the reserve funds to pay for their black lung liabilities, Cline said. In the three bankruptcies examined by the GAO, the companies had $27 million in collateral and 30 times that much in future liabilities — all of which was transferred to the trust fund.

Gary Hairston, 65, of Beckley, followed his father and brother into the mines. “I enjoyed just working and the guys you’re working with,” he said. “About the highest-paying job in West Virginia.”

But he left his union job when the company cut the pay and went to a nonunion mining company, Massey Energy, where dust regularly came billowing over the curtain that was supposed to contain it, he said. Massey gave him “the runaround” when he was diagnosed, then was bought out by Alpha, which declared bankruptcy in 2015. And now he gets a benefit from the trust fund.

“My daddy was a coal miner and I watched him die of black lung,” said Bounds, the miner who ran a loader. His father was 77 and suffered, gasping, for a long time. But he says he continued to work in the mines, figuring he was invincible. “I was six foot tall and could take a bullet. You think, it ain’t going to happen to me. Then one day it comes.”

Today, his lungs stiffened and scarred, unable even to walk his dog, he says he’s particularly alarmed by the novel coronavirus outbreak. “I’m really concerned, I really am,” he said. “If a coal miner gets it, he ain’t hardly got a chance. I don’t want to see nobody leave the world because of that."