A year-long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity reveals a system in which the coal industry purchases the high-priced expertise of prestigious lawyers and doctors to fight black-lung benefits claims. Miners, on the other hand, struggle by “breathless and burdened.”
As the incidence of black lung disease is on the increase, doctors and lawyers working on behalf of the coal industry engage “cutthroat” tactics to help defeat the benefits claims of miners who are sick and dying, an investigative report reveals.
The Center for Public Integrity conducted a year-long investigation of the black-lung disease benefits system, which is supposed to compensate coal miners for the illness. Black lung is a respiratory disease caused by the inhalation of mineral dust that results from mining. (The complete report is available here.)
Among the findings in the report are the following:
Public Integrity reporter Chris Hambry said he was drawn to the investigation when in 2012 he covered the resurgence of black-lung disease among coal miners. After completing that report, he started digging into the black-lung benefits program.
“Slowly, I was drawn into this world of administrative courts and arcane rules that touches thousands of lives each year,” Hambry writes in a backgrounder on the series. “There was a widespread sense among miners and their advocates that the deck was stacked against them…. Troubling questions emerged: Were significant numbers of sick and dying miners really being wrongfully denied benefits? And, if so, how could this be happening? ‘Breathless and Burdened’ begins answering these questions. Over the course of about a year of reporting, it became clear that miners with classic signs of black lung indeed were being caught in the maw of a complex system, left with nothing, litigated to death.”
The report is based on thousands of previously classified legal filings. Hambry created his own database of medical evidence and interviewed miners and their families in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland.
Federal black-lung benefits began in 1969 as part of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Hambry reports that in 2012 about 14% of black-lung claims led to an award by the Labor Department. But appeals likely reduce that percentage, he wrote, and “no definitive statistics are available.”
A third intallment of the series will be published Friday.