FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Years of working in underground coal mines in the mountains of eastern Kentucky left Chester Baker with the dreaded occupational disease black lung.
But the disabled coal miner from Harlan County said no thanks to money from the Kentucky Office of Workers Claims, money that could have been used to pay for retraining for a job in some other profession.
The state program, advocates say, is of little use to people sickened coal workers' pneumoconiosis, more commonly known as black lung. The problem is there just aren't that many jobs in central Appalachia outside the mining industry, especially for people with chronic breathing problems.
Only 168 Kentucky coal miners bothered to apply for black lung benefits from the state over the past year, the fewest since 2001, a year before lawmakers tweaked the state's workers' compensation plan in an effort to make it easier for miners to qualify for benefits.
The tweak didn't work, said Thomas Moak, a Prestonsburg attorney who represents coal miners. Moak said the state program is of little use to disabled coal miners because the same impairments that make them unable to work as miners also prevent them from
working in other professions.
"If you're going to retrain coal miners for some other employment, you've got to think realistically about what employment is out there," Moak said. "Our economy up here is manual labor. If it's not in the mines, it's still manual labor. This whole business about retraining miners is upside down."
The result, Moak said, is that miners with early stages of black lung who are still able to work are not leaving their jobs in the mines.
"You have mines begging for qualified miners," he said. "There's no reason for these guys to leave the mines when the demand for labor is so strong."
William P. Emrick, executive director of the Office of Workers Claims, said the incidence of black lung declined over the past 35 years after federal laws were enacted to control levels of dust in coal mines.
However, the National Black Lung Association estimates 1,500 people die each year due to the disease. New cases continue to pop up despite efforts to control the amount of black dust inhaled by miners.
Federal researchers believe coal miners in some Appalachian counties are getting black lung at a younger age and higher rate than other mining regions, despite the government's measures to control coal dust levels and eliminate the disease. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has identified 22 counties in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia as "hot spots" for rapidly progressive black lung.
In these coal-producing counties, some miners in their 30s, 40s and early 50s are experiencing rapidly progressive black lung - about 10 to 30 years sooner than cases observed in the past, according to the federal study.
Lawmakers in Kentucky made slight changes to the state workers' compensation law in 2002 in an effort to loosen restrictions on black lung claims. A complete revamping of the black lung program in 1996 prevented most miners from winning awards from the state.
Under the 1996 law, the Office of Workers Claims approved only 11 claims over a five-year period.
Under the revamped law, miners with any evidence of black lung are eligible for retraining benefits worth nearly $65,000 over four years. That would cover basic literacy instruction to college classes. Miners age 57 and older could receive cash instead of retraining benefits.
Wes Addington, an attorney for the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Prestonsburg, said Kentucky's black lung benefits program is worthless to miners.
"The system is basically dead," he said. "It's written in such a way that it doesn't give miners real alternatives. The likelihood of a miner being retrained at 55 is not a practical
alternative. I think that's shown by the number of miners who don't use the system. It's not a practical, workable system."
Baker's case made its way to the Kentucky Court of Appeals earlier this month, not because he was pursing benefits, but because his attorney, Johnnie Turner of Harlan, was trying to collect legal fees from the Office of Workers Claims. Neither Turner nor Baker could be reached for comment. But Moak said their situation points to an additional reason why the number of miners who apply for black lung benefits is low. Lawyers have no guarantee they'll be paid if they take on the time-consuming cases.
"There's less incentive for attorneys to file these retraining cases if the attorney isn't going to get paid," Moak said.
Moak said lawmakers need to take a fresh look at the black lung issue, and consider making further changes to a 1996 law that made getting benefits almost impossible.
"Common sense tells you we've not eliminated the disease," he said. "Yet we've got a system that closes the door on miners getting benefits."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved