Black lung disease, the lethal hazard for coal miners that was thought to be on the wane, is far from finished. Autopsies of 24 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion four years ago found that 17 of them had black lung, the crippling respiratory disease that left generations of miners hooked up to oxygen tanks.
Government data show the disease, preventable but not curable, has killed more than 76,000 miners since 1968. And it appears to be on the rise again, with 7,400 new claims expected this year.
For those miners currently afflicted in retirement, the distress is compounded by a legalistic welter of requirements that can deny them federal black lung benefits for years. Senator Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, called a hearing in July and heard testimony that it takes 429 days for a black lung case just to be assigned to an administrative law judge.
A principal obstacle to fair and prompt compensation, the hearings confirmed, are the batteries of well-financed doctors and lawyers hired by deep-pocketed mining companies eager to avoid paying the roughly $1,000 a month they would owe disabled miners.
An investigative report last year by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News found that one physician in the hire of the coal companies had not verified a single case of black lung in reviewing more than 1,500 applicants since 2000. Fewer than 1 in 10 applicants have been granted benefits in recent years. “The deck is stacked,” said Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia.
This has prompted the Department of Labor to take a fresh look at the process and at allegations that lawyers for the coal companies have withheld evidence favorable to miners and their widows. The department has urged miners to resubmit applications and is phasing in tighter standards and increased dust samplings of the air miners inhale. Mr. Casey and Mr. Rockefeller are also sponsoring legislation to help claimants in the litigation struggle with Big Coal and provide them access to medical findings that show black lung continues to stalk the mines.