Center series digs into the 'epidemic' of deadly black lung disease

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Since the late 1990s, there has been a striking resurgence in deadly black lung disease among coal miners in central Appalachia, as documented by our previous investigative project. At the same time, fewer than 14 percent of sick miners are able to win federal black lung benefits claims. The reason why is the subject of an excellent investigation being launched today by the Center for Public Integrity’s Chris Hamby, along with ABC News.

This new, three-part series examines the coal industry’s efforts to beat back miners’ claims for benefits. "Breathless and Burdened" will be published by the Center today, Wednesday and Friday, and ABC News will air televised reports Wednesday evening on World News and Nightline, as well as publish reports at abcnews.go.com.

It is difficult to imagine someone more voiceless or whose suffering is more silent than the Appalachian coal miner. These are the “men and women who live and die for coal, who spend lifetimes underground and see the fruits of their labors enrich others and deliver cheap energy, who suck in dust and don’t complain as it blackens their lungs and chokes off their breath,” Hamby writes.

In the last decade, black lung claimed more than 7,400 lives, according to government data. A government epidemiologist described the recent increase in prevalence as “an epidemic.” And this disease is affecting younger and younger miners who are contracting the most severe cases.

“Though coal’s dominance has eroded to some degree,” Hamby writes, “more than 85,000 Americans still work to claw it from the earth. The same technological advances that have allowed greater productivity also pose greater risks to miners as powerful machines generate clouds of disease-causing dust.”

Our series focuses on why so few claims for benefits are granted. Part of the reason is the aggressive tactics of the attorneys in the federal black lung unit of the law firm Jackson Kelly PLLC. For almost two centuries, the firm has served the coal industry. It is the go-to place for many of the industry’s giants when they want to defeat benefits claims.

Jackson Kelly, with offices throughout Appalachia, as well as in Denver and Washington, D.C., defends companies accused of polluting the environment, marketing dangerous drugs or discriminating against workers. It helps corporations avoid regulations, drafts bills and lobbies legislators.  Its specialty, though, is mining. U.S. News & World Report recently named it the nation’s top firm in mining law. Jackson Kelly’s name is on the lips of clinic workers, miners and lawyers throughout Appalachia, and is emblazoned atop an office towering over the Monongahela River in Morgantown, W.Va.

The law firm has argued that its tactics are entirely proper. The Center’s yearlong investigation documents the cutthroat approach to fighting miners’ claims that Jackson Kelly has employed to great effect for decades. Some of the firm’s tactics go beyond aggressive advocacy, crossing into unethical behavior, according to current and former judges, lawyers and state disciplinary officials. As a result, sick and dying miners have been denied the modest benefits and affordable medical care that would allow them to survive and support their families.

The role of lawyers in orchestrating sophisticated legal strategies to defeat claims for benefits is just the first chapter in the story of a system in which well-paid specialists thrive as miners struggle. Please take a look at "Breathless and Burdened" this week on www.publicintegrity.org and ABC News.


Meanwhile, on an unrelated topic, Watchdog readers in the Washington area are invited to a book party to hear Center for Public Integrity Board member Marianne Szegedy-Maszák speak about her remarkable family memoir, I Kiss Your Hands Many Times: Hearts, Souls and Wars in Hungary.

Based upon years of archival research across borders, this wartime love story includes close encounters with Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman. The event will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 5th, from 6-8 pm, at the National Press Club (Holeman Lounge), 529 14th Street, N.W. 20045. Please RSVP to Dorothy Betts in our office at dbetts@publicintegrity.org.

Until next week,

Bill