Waiting to Exhale

New federal rules could help coal miners breathe easier.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


When Ernest Scott retired after 21 years as a coal miner in Virginia, his relaxation proved short-lived. Scott soon noticed that he was unable to climb stairs or walk short distances without becoming painfully short of breath. A doctor told him why: He had pneumoconiosis, more commonly known as black lung. Coal dust had scarred his lungs, preventing them from properly processing oxygen. Each year, according to the National Black Lung Association, 1,500 former miners die from complications related to the disease.

But Scott and thousands of other crippled miners have found it impossible to collect benefits under the Federal Black Lung Benefits Act, set up in 1969 to provide income to miners who suffer from the condition. When the program started, 75 percent of miners who filed claims were granted compensation. But over the years, coal companies backed rules that have enabled them to delay benefits. Since 1995, federal figures show, only 1,161 claims have been approved — fewer than 6 percent of the 19,377 claims filed.

“The cases usually last for years,” says Martin Wegbreit, an attorney for miners in Castlewood, Virginia. “Most folks don’t have the resources to fight that long.”

New federal rules introduced last year aim to streamline the claims process and award benefits to thousands of disabled miners. Under the proposed changes, officials deciding claims would consider equal amounts of evidence from miners and coal companies, and place more weight on testimony from a miner’s personal physician.

But coal companies have fought the reforms, calling them “an assault on profitability.” According to the industry, the number of miners awarded benefits will jump by 45 percent, putting many small operators out of business. “Coal operators and insurance companies are frustrated by the endless litigation by miners to get benefits,” says Ronald Gilbertson, who represents the industry.

In fact, some coal companies have fueled the number of claims by continuing to expose miners to dangerous levels of coal dust. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly half of all mines have submitted false reports to conceal hazards. Federal officials announced last year that they would begin independently measuring dust levels for the first time.

“When it comes to coal dust sampling, almost everybody cheats — and everybody knows it,” says Senator Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat who has toured coal mines in eastern Kentucky. “This is more than a disgrace. It’s a tragedy.”

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate