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WV Miners Propose State Black Lung Program to Avoid Issues in Fed System

Black Lung is an incurable disease caused by breathing coal dust, which gets worse until a miner dies. (Yale Rosen/Fickr)
Black Lung is an incurable disease caused by breathing coal dust, which gets worse until a miner dies. (Yale Rosen/Fickr)
April 19, 2018

MATEWAN, W.Va. — A group of miners has put forward a plan for a state black lung program. It would solve problems in the federal system they say now stop miners from getting benefits.

Eighty percent of the funds in the federal black lung program go to doctors, lawyers, judges and bureaucrats, according to Charles "Hawkeye" Dixon, financial secretary at the UMWA local in Matewan.

Dixon said he helped write the state proposal because it's difficult to see miners struggle in a federal system dominated by coal companies and their hired professionals.

“It’s somewhere between sickening and just pure frustration,” Dixon said. “We have miners who have died, been autopsies preformed showing that they're eat up with black lung, have never qualified for a monthly benefit."

Industry lawyers argue the complex medical and legal hurdles are needed to weed out undeserving applicants.

Dixon said rather than making miners prove total disability, as is now the case, their program would assume a miner has black lung after ten years of exposure. A bill outlining the proposal led the Legislature to call for an interim study.

Miners seeking federal benefits most often represent themselves, and are opposed by doctors and lawyers hired by the company to help the firm avoid paying benefits to former employees.

Danny Whitt of Red Jacket has spent 24 years as an underground miner. He said he's applied three times under the federal system, getting more or less the same answer.

“’Yes, Mr. Whitt, you have black lung, but you're not completely disabled.’ Packet of paper about three inches thick with all these results and stuff,” Whitt said; “but the only thing you really understand out of all of this is they're denying you your black lung benefits."

According to Dixon, their state system wouldn't pay as much as the federal system, but with a much simpler application process, more of the funding would go to the miners.

"It would be a far less benefit than the federal, but it would be something for those miners,” Dixon said; “lots - if not most - that have 30, 40, some 50 years exposure that's not getting anything."

Dixon said the state plan could be funded by taxing rising forms of energy - wind, solar and gas. Or, he said, West Virginia could recapture some of the money he said the feds waste.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV