The 2020 West Virginia legislative session has ended with no new legislation addressing black lung benefits, leaving former and current coal miners to depend on waning federal benefits to combat the lifelong disease.
Coal Miners Vs. Coal Companies
The Kanawha County chapter of the Black Lung Association -- which includes about 30 current and former coal miners, wives, widows and volunteers -- lobbied local legislators this past year to no avail. Last week the group celebrated its one-year anniversary while discussing what the future will look like for miners at its’ monthly meeting in Cabin Creek, West Virginia.
Cabin Creek has a long history with coal mining and strife between union workers and the coal companies over wages. In 1912 the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek strike resulted in a year-long, deadly battle, and over 200 miners were arrested, and even 108 years later, the resentment is palpable.
John Ingram has black lung, a crippling disease caused by the inhalation of coal and silica dust. He worked underground and on surface mines as an electrician.
“I get a little frustrated because coal companies for years, I mean before I was born even, got away with whatever they wanted to get away with,” Ingram said. “And somebody needs to stop them, hold them accountable. After all we made the money for them.”
The Federal Fight
These days, miners are still fighting, albeit nonviolently, through the bureaucratic system for federal black lung benefits. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund provides some miners disabled by black lung with monthly payments and medical benefits. Coal companies pay into it through a per-ton tax on coal.
But the fund is more than $4 billion in debt, and as coal companies increasingly file for bankruptcy it is facing insolvency more quickly than predicted.
For miners, getting approved for the federal benefits is time consuming. Jerry Coleman, the chapter’s president, fought for seven years. He said many of the men in the room have been denied and are trying to appeal.
“Yeah I’ve got 37 years in the coal mines,” he said. “Some of them they’ve got 30 some years in the coal mines, and they’re getting turned down. There’s something wrong.”
Historically there have been many loopholes for coal companies to appeal miners’ requests for federal benefits, and cases can be tied up for sometimes 10 years.
The Local Fight
Three bills presented to state legislators this year intended to ease pressure off miners in the process of seeking federal benefits and help those who are diagnosed with black lung but can still work. Senate Bill 54 and House Bill 440 would have guaranteed miners diagnosed with black lung 20 weeks of paid benefits and a 25 percent permanent partial disability award. Additionally, House Bill 2588 would have eliminated any time limit to receive a black lung diagnosis. None of the bills made it out of committee.
Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion county, sponsored two of the black lung bills this session.
“It’s not something that’s real popular with the masses, like promising jobs. But it’s real and it needs discussed and it needs more focus put on it,” he said. “And we tried to do that by introducing legislation but getting the leadership to try to move that type of legislation is almost impossible.”
The failure of the West Virginia Legislature to once again take action comes as miners in central Appalachia face an epidemic of deadly progressive massive fibrosis, the advanced stage of black lung disease.
Sam Petsonk, a Beckley-based attorney who has largely represented black lung cases, explained to the chapter why the partial disability award is a bill to lobby for next year.
“It's an important way to prevent people from getting deathly sick, as fast,” Petsonk said. “You get that 25 percent, monitor yourself, make sure you're out of the dust, don't do anything crazy and control your disease -- prolong your life.”
As the meeting ended, members talked about how to move forward. Their plan is to continue lobbying the Legislature for the 25 percent permanent partial disability award, and to lobby the federal government for a permanent plan to fund the black lung benefits.
Plan For Lifelong Sickness
One of the resounding sentiments was to vote. Former miners John Ingram and Arthur Betty have black lung and said miners have felt disenfranchised for the last 75 years.
“There’s where the fight starts right there,” Betty said. “You can’t win if you keep putting the same cutthroat crooks year after year. Let’s get a new racehorse in there.”
“Any politician that sides with the coal companies, don't vote for them,” Ingram said.
And as for the younger generation, Ingram said he encourages them to still work in the coal mines even though he admits black lung is inevitable in the working conditions. Although he said younger miners need to take steps now to plan for their future of sickness.
“You work in the coal mines. It's a good honest living, but you work in there safely,” he said.
Del. Caputo said there are plans to introduce similar legislation to the black lung partial disability benefits, again, in next year’s session.
The Kanawha County chapter of the Black Lung Association meets at 3:30 on the first Thursday of every month at the Zion Assembly Church of God in Cabin Creek.
This story is part of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Southern Coalfields Reporting Project which is supported by a grant from the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.
An earlier version of this story mistated the name of the miner in the lead photo. It is Milton 'Mickey' Pettry, not Milton 'Mickey' Patrick.