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Backlog of black lung claims grabs feds' attention

| Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 11:41 a.m.
Austin Bachand | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Bill Rising wears his old miner’s hardhat at his Indiana, PA house on Tuesday, July 22, 2014. Rising is required to receive oxygen at all times on account of Black Lung that he received while working in the mining industry

The federal government needs more staff in Pittsburgh to handle an increasing number of workers' compensation cases tied to black lung disease in miners, a Labor Department official told a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday.

The expected reopening of previous claims that were possibly mishandled will further increase the caseload and is an added reason why the department's Office of Administrative Law Judges is seeking an extra $2.7 million next year for more staff, particularly three administrative law judges who would primarily handle black lung cases, said Deputy Labor Secretary Chris Lu.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, said the agency probably needs $10 million more above that request. Miners and their families wait years to get a decision on their benefit claims, he said.

“Our nation's hard-working miners and their families deserve much better than that,” he said.

Casey convened a hearing before the Senate Health Committee's Employment and Workplace Safety Subcommittee in response to a yearlong investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News that examined how doctors and lawyers working for the coal industry withheld evidence and misdiagnosed X-rays to defeat black lung claims.

Lu testified that the agency is projecting it will have 7,400 claims filed this year, 1,000 more than last year. A spokeswoman told the Tribune-Review the Labor Department had a backlog of 2,856 black lung cases in September 2013, the latest figures available.

Black lung, or pneumoconiosis, is an incurable and potentially fatal disease caused by inhaling coal dust. The dust damages the lungs, inflaming the walls of its air sacs until the lung stiffens from the scarring of the tissue between the sacs.

More than 76,000 miners have died from the disease since 1968, according to the Labor Department.

An Indiana County coal miner waited more than three years to get his claim approved by an administrative law judge, according to the judge's Dec. 13, 2013, decision.

Bill Rising, 59, uses oxygen even while resting.

“I just lay around the house basically, sit out on the porch, occasionally go up the road to visit my grandchildren,” he said.

While he can use a riding lawn mower to cut his grass, he doesn't have enough lung capacity to use a weed trimmer to trim the edges.

“I ride the tractor with an oxygen bottle on back,” he said.

Rising was an underground coal miner for more than 22 years. He was diagnosed 11 years ago, after he had quit mining, said his wife, Wanda.

Her husband received his first benefit check in February.

“It's been a long time coming,” she said.

A problem victims have is that few lawyers will take their cases, a West Virginia attorney told the subcommittee.

The lawyer fees are relatively small, and attorneys can't collect them unless a judge approves the claim, which usually takes several years, said John Cline, a Piney View, W.Va., attorney who takes black lung cases.

The Risings said they had trouble getting a claim filed and before a judge until they heard about the Lungs At Work clinic in McMurray that provides treatment and an advocate to help with claims. Lynda Glagola, the director and advocate, couldn't be reached for comment.

Jack Howard, director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, said the incidence of black lung reached its highest point between 1970 and 1974, with 29.3 percent of miners monitored by the government getting the disease.

The rate had dropped to 3.2 percent between 1995 and 1999 but has since increased to 6.4 percent in the latest testing period for which results are available, 2005 to 2009.

Though it's a nationwide problem in the coal mining industry, the rates have been highest, “predominantly among underground coal miners in the Central Appalachian states, predominantly in the smaller mines,” Howard said.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Trib Media. Contact him at 412-325-4301 or at bbowling@tribweb.com.

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