Widows walk to demand
federal black lung benefits
Urge support at rallies on way
from coalfields to Washington
BY FRANK FORRESTAL
AND TONY LANE
PITTSBURGH--Widows of miners who died of black lung are gearing up for a month-long protest, walking from Charleston, West Virginia, to Washington, and holding rallies along the way.
They will spotlight the fact that black lung, 30 years after the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was enacted, still runs rampant in the coalfields. Black lung, also known as coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is a debilitating and sometimes fatal respiratory disease. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) estimates that 1,500 miners die each year from black lung.
In a phone interview, Debbie Wills, a leader of the National Black Lung Association (BLA) and secretary of the Kanawha Valley Black Lung and Disabled Workers Association in West Virginia, said the widows will start their protest March 15 with a rally in Charleston. "From there we will walk north to Fairmont and Morgantown, West Virginia. We plan to hold rallies in these towns and encourage people to walk with us. We are also hoping to walk to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and then head south to Washington, D.C. The walk will end with in a protest at the Capitol on April 15," said Wills.
In West Virginia, the planned protest is beginning to receive TV and newspaper coverage. One of the main organizers of the walk is Linda Chapman, whose husband died from black lung. Before he died, Chapman's black lung benefits were cut off. Linda Chapman said she will be walking for the many widows, who for health reasons, are unable to make the long trip to Washington.
In an interview with the Charleston Gazette, Chapman said, "People who responded to the disaster at the World Trade Center soon began to experience trouble breathing. In 48 hours of breathing that white dust from the towers, they started having problems, but no one said to them, 'Prove it.' With a coal miner, people are saying 'Prove it' until the day he dies. Then after he dies, they keep saying it to his widow."
Black lung programs hit widows the hardest. The law requires that in order to collect benefits, widows must prove their husbands died as a result of black lung or that it was a significant contributing factor. But because their husband's deaths are often attributed to other causes, most widows are unable to meet this burden of proof. If a miner dies while drawing benefits, payments stop and a widow has to file a separate claim.
The widows' walk is sponsored by the National Black Lung Association, the United Mine Workers of America, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalitions. Wills said they are seeking more endorsements, as well as appealing for much needed funds.
It is becoming widely known that federal and state black lung programs are a fraud. Approval rates for black lung benefits have plummeted to less than 4 percent, according to the federal government.
This was not always the case. When federal legislation was enacted in 1969 after years of militant protests by miners, the approval rate for disabled miners, and widows of miners was close to 75 percent. Miners had to prove that they worked in the mines 10 years and provide medical evidence that they had the disease. The benefits were paid out of the Black Lung Trust Fund, which was financed by a tax on the coal companies.
Two main blows were dealt to the program. First, many coal companies refused to pay the tax, resulting in a huge debt. Second, in the early 1980s the Black Lung Benefits Act was gutted by the Reagan administration. It was singled out by the big-business parties as one of the worse examples of "so-called entitlement programs."
The government changed eligibility rules and miners' ability to receive benefits went from bad to worse. The onus of proving black lung now fell on the coal miner. Getting black lung compensation has become a nightmare. Roanoke Times reporter Ron Nixon reported that "in house after house in the Virginia coalfields breathing machines and oxygen tanks are as common as TV sets." In most cases Medicare doesn't even pay for prescription drugs that disabled miners need to keep breathing.
In the coalfields today it is not unusual for benefits to be denied, then granted after appealing, only later to be denied again, after months and even years. And then there are widows who have been turned down every time they applied.
Peggy Coleman, active in the Kanawha BLA for more than 20 years, said she had been denied black lung benefits 13 times. Her husband died of black lung 16 years ago. "My husband was only 55 years old," she said, adding that the government needs to pass a much stronger black lung bill. It is out of these hellish conditions that the widows have taken the lead by calling their protests.
Funds for the widows' walk can be sent and made out to NBLA c/o Thomas Ellis, P.O. Box 632, Royaliton, IL 62983. For more information on the widows' walk, call Kanawha Valley Black Lung and Disabled Workers Association at 304-595-2280.
Frank Forrestal and Tony Lane are members of United Mine Workers of America Local 1248 in southwestern Pennsylvania.
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