Waiting to Exhale

New federal rules could help coal miners breathe easier.

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.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

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."