Speak Your Piece: Black Lung Rising
[imgbelt img=BLpills.jpg]It can take years for underground coal miners to qualify for black lung benefits. Then they have to do it all over again.
John Adkins’s Christmas wish in 2005 was to be healthy enough to spend the holiday at home with his wife, Grace, and his children.
John’s bones had gotten so brittle the last time I visited him at his home in Gilboa, West Virginia, he had to straddle the cushions on the couch so that the bones supporting the bulk of his 140 pounds rested in the cracks. That position helped to alleviate the joint pain. He kept a couple of oxygen tanks at his side and one strapped on him so he could breathe. John suffered from several ailments relating to his work history.
His major illness was black lung. He spent his life as a coal miner in West Virginia.
One of John’s longest and hardest-fought battles was for black lung benefits. Initially he was awarded black lung compensation but the coal company where he had worked appealed that ruling and a year later after he’d submitted to more and more medical tests, a federal administrative law judge overturned the decision, ruling in favor of the company. John had to repay what he had received. He ended up losing his pickup truck.
The struggle to breathe and the continuous disappointing struggle with black lung claims ended on April 7, 2006, when he was laid to rest on a hillside in his family’s cemetery. John Adkins gave his all to Island Creek Coal Company, but when he became so ill he could no longer dig coal, he felt his employer turned on him and used every tactic imaginable to wear him down physically, break him mentally and deny him any benefits he may have deserved as a coal miner suffering from black lung.
Clifford McMann’s black lung case made it all the way to Washington & Lee University in his family’s last ditch effort to file for black lung benefits. He died the same week the mound of his medical records were delivered to the black lung legal clinic at the Virginia college. A lifelong West Virginia coal miner, Clifford bent over backward for his employer. He didn’t even begin the process of filing for black lung benefits until retirement even though he showed signs of black lung years before. He did not want anyone to think he was not an honorable man. He filed to help with medical expenses. His widow is now left with a cardboard box of medical records and the sorrow of losing her husband.[imgcontainer left] [img:BLGrace.jpg] The author, left, and Grace Adkins.
Clifford McMann, like John Adkins, was initially awarded benefits, but the coal operator appealed and won. Clifford, like John, had to repay what little he had received, then start over again with the appeal process.
Numerous medical tests were required in Clifford’s final appeal process. He submitted to these tests upon advice from doctors, lawyers and a hopeful family. Doctors reported Clifford suffered from black lung during early medical tests. During his final appeal, after Clifford had been moved to a nursing home because of his fragile and demanding medical condition, the coal company required Clifford to go to a doctor several miles away for a full day of testing to determine if he had black lung. At the time, one of Clifford’s lungs was collapsed, he was on a feeding tube, could not walk, talk or sit up.
These miners and an untold number like them have died terrible, painful deaths as their families stood by helplessly. Not only were they cheated out of being able to take a breath of air without hoarse coughing, spitting up of phlegm and being unable to move about without an oxygen tank attached to their backs; we are now finding out these miners may have lost black lung compensation because of dubious tactics by lawyers representing coal companies.
This complicated legal story has been well-covered in the Charleston (WV) Gazette. It involves attorneys from the Jackson Kelly law firm, which represents coal companies, their handling of black lung cases. According to testimony at hearings, the Gazette reports that Jackson Kelly would require miners to take tests for black lung, but would not forward the complete findings of the doctor either to the miner or to the court. A coal company attorney testified that this was standard procedure in black lung practice.
Reporter Ken Ward Jr. wrote in June:
“The cases allege instances where unidentified Jackson Kelly lawyers gave judges or the law firm’s own experts only portions of the medical test results, withholding other evidence that proved miners had black lung. In some instances, Jackson Kelly attorneys allegedly withheld proof of black lung from miners who did not have lawyers helping with their benefits cases. But once those miners obtained lawyers, and those lawyers sought complete copies of the medical evidence, Jackson Kelly tried to settle the cases and avoid revealing the fraudulent actions, the lawsuits allege….The allegations stem from Jackson Kelly’s representation of coal companies that opposed the granting of black lung benefits for miners.”
[imgcontainer left] [img:BLRasmussen.jpg] [source]Earl Dotter/Southern SpacesPioneer black-lung doctor Donald R. Rasmussen says, “The disease continues to be a problem at smaller mines in the region.”