BLACK LUNG RESURGENCE
The fund pays benefits to miners severely disabled by black lung in cases where no coal company can be found to directly provide support. That typically occurs when a company has gone belly-up – an increasingly common scenario as the nation’s utilities shift to cheaper natural gas and cleaner solar and wind power.
Some 2,600 medical claims were transferred from companies to the fund in 2017 due to bankruptcies, according to a Congressional report this year.
Government research shows the incidence of black lung rebounding, despite improved safety measures adopted decades ago – such as dust screens and ventilation – that had nearly eradicated the disease in the 1990s.
In February, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health confirmed 416 cases of advanced black lung disease in three medical clinics in rural Virginia from 2013 to 2017 – the highest concentration of cases ever seen. It also confirmed a 2016-2017 investigation by National Public Radio that found many hundreds more cases in southwestern Virginia, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
“This is history moving in the wrong direction,” said Kirsten Almberg, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Almberg authored an analysis of Labor Department data showing that nearly half the 4,679 benefits claims from miners with the worst form of black lung disease were made since 2000.
Ex-miners and regional health experts blame the resurgence on longer hours spent in deeper parts of old, played-out mines, along with lax safety measures and the use of heavy machines to blast through layers of rock.
“We didn’t use curtains. We rarely used ventilators. We thought we were invincible,” said Greg Jones, who left mining in March and now coordinates benefits applications at the Tug River Black Lung Clinic in Gary, West Virginia.
Brandon Crum, a radiologist at the United Medical Group in Pikeville, Kentucky, said he has personally diagnosed more than 150 cases of advanced black lung disease since 2016, many in younger miners.
Crum, whose own family worked the mines for a century, said many of these people face a lifetime unable to work, inundated with medical bills.
“Any kind of asset or financial stability you would take away from these miners and their families would be devastating,” he said.
To qualify for benefits, a miner must apply to the Department of Labor, which screens the applications based on medical and employment documentation and then tries to find a responsible coal company to pay the costs.
Jim Werth, the black lung clinic director at Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Virginia, said his clinic has three people on staff helping patients file for benefits. He rejected the idea that the fund was covering undeserving applicants, saying the process already makes it hard to qualify, with coal companies often hiring doctors to dispute medical test results.
William McCool, 64, said it took him years to win benefits.
“I worked 40 years in the mines, and the benefits don’t come automatic,” said McCool, who wore a gray baseball cap emblazoned with a crossing pick-axe and shovel during an interview at the Mountain Health Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, where he receives oxygen and physical therapy.
Kennith Adams – a 62-year-old former miner who survived stage-four colon cancer and is now suffering advanced black lung – had his first application rejected two years ago, he said. Consol argued he did not work for the firm when he became ill. Adams had worked at the Bishop Coal Company, which later got taken over by Consol.
Consol did not respond to a request for comment.
Adams and his wife Tammie are now hoping his latest application – sent last month – will be approved to help them pay medical bills of more than $12,000 a month.
“If he doesn’t get his medicine,” his wife said, “he doesn’t stand a chance.”
(Reporting by Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot)
Keep reading (more images ahead)…