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Rural Blog: Getting black-lung benefits a daunting task for Central Appalachian coal miners

Black-lung disease is common among coal miners, with one in 10 nationwide suffering some form of it. The disease hit a 25-year high in Central Appalachia last year, where one in five suffer from it. But accessing federal benefits for the sometimes debilitating and deadly disease can be difficult, often taking years of fighting through bureaucracy, Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley Resource.

“The black lung benefits process is really adversarial,” Evan Smith, an AppalReD Legal Aid attorney who represents miners and widows in black-lung litigation, told Boles. “For people who just kind of file a claim and think they can figure out the system on their own, sadly, they’re really at a disadvantage.”

Black-lung claims by total received since July 1, 1973, including terminated, non-approved claims and Medical Benefits Only claims. (Ohio Valley Resource map, click for larger image)

Applying for benefits is a task mostly left to the wives of coal miners who died (or are dying) from black lung disease. The time-consuming process can be daunting and prohibitively expensive for women often struggling financially without their spouse’s income, Boles reports.

Black-lung claims are often denied because the miner’s lung damage was ruled to have been caused by smoking, or the miner died from another primary cause such as a heart attack, or the miner’s blood oxygen level isn’t quite low enough to qualify, Boles reports. That’s despite a recent investigation by NPR and the PBS program Frontline which found that federal regulators failed to protect coal miners from black lung, despite many warnings.

But even before an official diagnosis, black lung can effectively cripple miners living with the disease. As part of their investigation, NPR and PBS interviewed dozens of sufferers in Central Appalachia and heard about how black lung has changed their lives. “I can’t follow a hound through the mountains nowadays. I had to give all that up,” said Paul Kinder of Honaker, Va. “The old saying goes, you lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas. And if you work in the coal mines, you’re going to get black lung.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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