Black Lung Deniers

You don't have to be a doctor at Johns Hopkins to know black lung disease when you see it. I know firsthand because I've seen it. I've seen it kill my father, my grandfathers and uncles. They were all coal miners who breathed coal dust for years until their scarred lungs could no longer work and they suffocated.

Now a year-long investigation finds that even if you are a doctor at Johns Hopkins, you may not acknowledge black lung disease, even when it's right in front of your eyes. "Breathless and Burdened," a scathing report from the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News, lays bare for the public something miners and their families in the coal fields have known for decades. Coal companies, their lawyers and their hand-picked doctors will go to any length -- ethical or not -- to deny the small monthly benefits that stricken miners are due under the Black Lung Benefits Act.

I know full well that coal companies have been cheating miners since the day coal was hand loaded and weighed and of the cold corporate "code of ethics" they operate under. But even with my years of experience in the mines and as a union leader, I was sickened and angered by what I read. You will be too when you read how lawyers at Jackson Kelly PLLC, the go-to law firm for coal companies fighting miners' black lung claims, have routinely withheld medical evidence.

You'll be angry when you read that doctors in a small unit of radiologists at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions almost always denied x-ray evidence of black lung. One doctor examined 1,573 miners' black lung x-rays and not once did he diagnose the severe form of black lung that automatically qualifies for compensation. Incredibly, he frequently claimed the damaged lungs were the result of exposure to bird and bat feces. I'm surprised he didn't reach back to the medical literature of the 1930s and '40s and claim these miners were suffering from "miners' asthma." As a result of the investigation by the Center and ABC, Johns Hopkins has since suspended the program.

While most of the news coverage of the report focuses on the actions of the coal companies and their hired-gun lawyers and hand-selected doctors, the heart of the story is the miners and their families. Many are tethered to oxygen tanks, unable to walk with their wives, play with kids and grandkids, go to a ball game or work in the garden. They are forced to sleep sitting up for fear of choking on the coal dust-laden phlegm deep in their lungs. This disease changes their lives and their families' lives forever. I know.

My dad was a ball player, a good ball player, a pitcher. One day when my sister's three boys were 6, 8 and 10, they came by and said, "Come on, grand pap, let's go play ball." But it was a hot day and miners with black lung can't go outside on hot days and cold days because you can't breathe. It's you and the oxygen tank, left behind. So he couldn't go out.

He was sitting in the living room in a rocking chair by the window when I came in, and he looked out at those kids playing ball. He had a big tear running down his cheek as he looked at those boys. It wasn't until then that I understood how much black lung and that coal company had taken from my dad. It took his ability to enjoy his grandkids, the quality of his life and left instead the strain it put on him and everyone else around him.

Black lung finally killed my dad in 1999. Since then, more than 9000 miners have died of black lung. Now, even with stricter exposure rules than my dad and his generation worked under, new studies are finding that black lung is being diagnosed in younger and younger miners.

This has to stop. And the first place to start is in the mine, right where they cut coal, right at the point of contact. They do that in Australia, where dust control rules require strong ventilation and wetting agents on the cutting machines to keep breathable coal dust out of the air. There has not been a single new case of black lung diagnosed there since 2006. We need to replicate a system like Australia's to eliminate the dust at the point of contact.

But in this country, the coal companies that fight virtually every single black lung claim are the same companies that fight so vigorously against new regulations to control coal dust in their mines. If they are so opposed to paying benefits to miners suffering from a disease caused by coal dust, you would think they would want to control coal dust. But then some of these very companies as recently as the 1990s were caught tampering with and disconnecting the instruments that measure coal dust levels in their mines.

That's why the Obama administration -- as a step in the right direction -- needs to finalize a rule proposed in 2010 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to cut breathable coal mine dust in half and establish new air sampling requirements.

The administrative maze that black lung claimants must navigate has to change. It is a system heavily weighted in favor of coal companies that can hire high-priced lawyers who shop for doctors and favorable diagnoses versus coal miners with few resources to seek out additional medical evidence. Nonunion miners are even worse off because they often don't have the legal representation United Mine Workers (UMWA) members enjoy. At the very least, a panel of neutral physicians to examine medical evidence should be the main determiner in black lung claims. You've got to have doctors who are fair and honest.

Then maybe some firsthand experience with the symptoms of black lung might open the eyes of the coal company executives, lawyers and doctors just a bit about how debilitating this disease is. First tape your mouth shut, and then pinch one of your nostrils closed. Run up and down a flight of stairs 10 times. See how hard it is to breathe. Feel your heart pounding so hard that it scares you. That's what black lung victims deal with every day.

No one, not even coal company lawyers, should be condemned to such a life.