Fighting for Justice in the Coalfields

Director Steve Sanders testifies at U.S. Congressional hearing in favor of improvements to black lung laws

Advocates issue a call to level the playing field for coal miner claims under the Black Lung Benefits Act.

WASHINGTON — Today, the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing entitled “Protecting America’s Workers: Reviewing Mine Safety Policies with Stakeholders.” Subcommittee Democrats called for strengthening health and safety protections for miners to help prevent black lung disease, providing the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) with additional tools to enforce safety standards, and leveling the playing field for claimants under the Black Lung Benefits Act of 2015.

“Coal miners face a number of challenges pursuing federal black lung claims, including finding legal representation and developing sound medical evidence to support their claims,” said Ranking Member Bobby Scott (VA-03). “The Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015 ensures that miners have equal access to medical evidence and better access to legal resources. It also provides a remedy for those whose claims were denied due to recent discoveries of discredited medical evidence. This legislation will help miners and their families get the benefits they deserve.”

“It is an unfortunate reality that some jobs are hazardous to workers’ health,” said Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson (FL-24), Ranking Member of the Subcommittee. “Today we heard the tragic account of the debilitating effects of black lung disease on miners like the late Steve Day and the indignities that they are sometimes forced to endure in an effort to get the medical care that they need. As members of a committee tasked with enforcing workplace protections, it is our duty to fight for reforms like the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015 to help ensure that miners and their families receive the benefits they have rightly earned. We must also strengthen MSHA to ensure that there are adequate enforcement tools in place to fully protect workers. Accidents happen and sometimes tragedies cannot be averted. That does not absolve us of our responsibility to do all that we can so that workers who put their lives on the line are as safe and as healthy as humanly possible.”

At the hearing, witnesses Mike Wright of the United Steelworkers Union and Steve Sanders of Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center testified in support of legislative reforms to the Mine Act contained in the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act (H.R. 1926).

“The Mine Act is a good law, but it has some key flaws. For example MSHA lacks basic enforcement tools such as subpoena authority with which to conduct inspections and investigations,” said Mike Wright, Director of Health, Safety and the Environment for the Steelworkers. “In contrast, both the Occupational Safety and Health Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act provide the Labor Department with the subpoena authority that MSHA lacks. Even laws like the Popcorn Promotion, Research and Consumer Information Act include subpoena authority for the USDA.  It is outrageous that an agency whose mission is promoting popcorn has more authority than one charged with protecting miners from serious injury or death.”

Witnesses also highlighted the need to help coal miners who are afflicted with black lung disease and are overmatched by coal companies who can hire medical experts, armies of lawyers and have been able to game the system by withholding evidence that would allow miners to prove eligibility for benefits.

“The black lung benefits program is an adversarial system,” said Steve Sanders, Director of the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center, which represents black lung claimants in Eastern Kentucky. “But an adversarial system only works to deliver justice when both parties have equal resources. Too often miners do not have legal representation and, being disabled and not working, do not have the financial ability to pay for sophisticated medical testing to support their claim. The black lung benefits program needs improvements to provide for fairness and the efficient adjudications of claims.”

Earlier this fall, Congressman Matt Cartwright joined full committee Ranking Member Bobby Scott (VA-03) and Rep. Wilson to  introduce to the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act of 2015 (H.R. 3625) to protect workers and help level the playing field for miners.

Testimony of Mike Wright, Director of Health, Safety and the Environment for the United Steelworkers Union, can be found here.

Testimony of Steve Sanders, Director of the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center, can be found here.

Black Lung Special Report – Five Year Snap-Shot: The Terrible Numbers of Black Lung Disease.

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