As black lung cases surge in Appalachia, summit focuses on research and reform

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BIG STONE GAP, Va. (WJHL)- Cases of black lung in Appalachian coal-mining states are at a 25 year high, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health.

That was the focus of the Central Appalachia Black Lung and PMF Summit on Friday in Big Stone Gap.

The event, hosted by Sen. Mark Warner’s office, Stone Mountain Health Services and Mountain Empire Community College, focused on reforms and additional research needed to address this epidemic.

Rick Puckett, 64, said he worked in the coal mines of Buchanan County for 21 years before being diagnosed with black lung.

“In 2002, I was doing triathlons. In 2005, I couldn’t hardly breath,” he said. “I can’t even walk to the mailbox.”

In addition to “simple black lung,” local clinics are concerned about the rise of Progressive Massive Fibrosis.

“We’re seeing younger miners or miners who have less years in the coal mines who have a disease that is more progressive and more severe,” said Stone Mountain Health Services Research and Development Coordinator Margaret Tomann. “Research is showing that Central Appalachia especially is seeing this increase.”

This troubling trend has gotten the attention of academics like Emily Sarver, an associate professor of mining engineering at Virginia Tech.

Put simply, Sarver spends a lot of time looking very closely at coal mining dust.

“I think the thing that really keeps me up at night is that we don’t have really any good data from either the health surveillance side or the dust surveillance side that really explains what’s going on,” she said. “One of the things we’d like to understand is what’s different about the dust in central Appalachia.”

In 1995, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found silica is a lung hazard to coal miners.

Many at the summit want to see stricter regulation of the toxic particle, a process that started under the Obama Administration but was never completed.

Sarver said medical studies suggest silica is playing a role in the surge of black lung but monitoring data from the mines isn’t conclusive.

Some suspect faulty inspections are a factor.

“I don’t necessarily think that has changed over the past thirty years so I don’t think that alone can explain what we’re seeing,” Sarver said.

Preventing black lung is only half the battle.

Wes Addington, executive director of Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, described a brutal benefits process for miners and their families.

When Puckett first applied for black lung benefits, he said, “The attorneys for the coal company wrote me back and said ‘we’ve never heard of you. You did not work for us.'”

“They fight you so long that hopefully you give up or you die and that’s about as bluntly as I can put it,” said Sandra Tunnell, Puckett’s wife.

Sen. Warner’s staff reflected on improvements to the benefits process made under the Affordable Care Act but acknowledged more work needs to be done.

The Black Lung Benefits Improvements Act is currently on the table in the Senate.

“That would not only speed up the process but it would also make the process more fair for miners and widows seeking benefits,” Addington said.

Warner’s staff also stressed the need to move forward with the American Miners Act as soon as possible.

“It would help sure up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund that miners and widows rely upon to receive their benefits and their healthcare cause it’s deeply in debt at the moment,” Addington said.

Advocates in attendance said they hope this summit sends a message to lawmakers.

Dean Vance is a chapter president of Southwest Virginia’s Black Lung Association.

“A lot of people just kick the coal miner under the rug and forget about them but we gonna have to stand up and fight for coal miners,” Vance said.

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