The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 2, 2012

Nicholas County Black Lung Association: Miner advocacy group fills big need

SUMMERSVILLE — Fayette County is home to one of the oldest Black Lung Association chapters in existence, a hub of advocacy for disabled miners who are trying to file for black lung benefits. Now their neighbors in Nicholas County have the newest.

Unfortunately, the disease not only has a long history here, it also has a continued and growing presence.

“We knew there was a need, but we didn’t have any idea it was that big of a need,” Linda Neff says of the Nicholas County Black Lung Association, which she founded last spring.

Linda and her husband, Harold, began attending meetings of the Fayette County Black Lung Association after Harold got sick. There, they met Joe and Nancy Massie. Joe is president of the National Black Lung Association, which serves 11 states, and Nancy works tirelessly to help miners and widows file for black lung benefits.

Nancy urged Linda to consider starting up a new chapter in Nicholas County, where there are a lot of coal miners.

“I went home and prayed about it and decided I’ll try it and see what happens, see how many people come,” she says.

Forty men showed up to the first meeting in April, overflowing a meeting room at the local library. Linda had to find a new space at Summersville City Hall because attendance was so high. She now sends out 70 newsletters per month.

“Each meeting I realize and see more and more how it’s needed in this area,” she says. “There are so many coal

miners that have no idea what to do. They know they are sick. They know they have lung problems. But they go to the doctors and they tell them they don’t have it. And they know they do. So they need someone to help them. That’s where the Black Lung Association comes in.”

Originating in West Virginia’s Black Lung Movement of the late 1960s, Black Lung Associations are groups of coal miners and supporters who advocate to help keep laws strong around black lung, assist miners and their families in applying for federal and state black lung benefits, and offer all-around support to those suffering from the disease.

In Nicholas and Fayette counties, organizers have a team of helpers: Delisa Legg, a claims examiner in Rainelle; Debbie Willis, a benefits counselor in Cedar Grove; Cathy Stover of New River Health; United Mine Workers representatives; Department of Labor staff; and rare lawyers like John Cline or Mary Jane Brown, who will take on black lung cases.

A typical meeting at both chapters involves two hours of filling out paperwork together, and then an hour of formal meeting time that includes updates on attendees’ cases, presentations and open floor discussion.

“And we’re also there to tell them they just have to stay on it, continue in it and don’t stop. A lot that are turned down will want to quit, and you can’t do that,” says Linda.

“I haven’t seen anybody that wasn’t turned down at first. It’s a shame, but that’s the way it goes. You have to fight for it. They don’t give it to you.”

Linda says she founded the group to help others avoid all that her own family went through in their quest for benefits.

After working for 28 years for Terry Eagle Coal Co. in Nicholas County, Linda’s husband, Harold, began to have health problems.

“He couldn’t breathe right. He kept having different problems, and it would always go back to the lungs,” says Linda.

He tried multiple times to sign up for federal black lung benefits, but doctors kept telling him he didn’t have the disease. Finally, after nine years, a lung specialist did a biopsy because he suspected cancer.

“He said Harold had the worst case of black lung he had ever seen. That’s when I realized that a lot of these tests and stuff that they are doing is not showing up black lung.”

Harold eventually received federal black lung benefits after the doctor wrote up his findings from the biopsy, but he continues to undergo frequent hospitalization due to the illness.

Linda has learned a lot in the process of founding the new association, but says what has really surprised her is how hard coal companies will fight miners who file for benefits.

“I’ve seen people coming to the meetings on oxygen and they still have not got their black lung. The company is still fighting it. You’ve still got doctors out there that will lie. And they get by with it. I just don’t know how that can continue,” she says.

“My husband — he did everything he could to get the coal out and just as soon as he wasn’t able to work, do you think the company was there for him? No. It’s a money racket.”

Joe Massie had worked for 30 years underground for Consolidation Coal Co. when a doctor in Beckley diagnosed him with the disease. But when he filed for benefits, his employer sent him to a company doctor in Charleston who disagreed with the diagnosis. Finally, after 10 years of fighting, he was given a total lifetime award for his disability.

The Nicholas County BLA’s vice president, Arvin Hanshaw, started coming to the meetings early on. He is in his 50s, and his condition was so bad that the company he worked for wouldn’t let him come to work, saying he had black lung. Yet, when he filed for benefits, the company fought it and he still has not received any compensation.

Fighting for benefits is an uphill battle that rewards perseverance and is eased with the support of others in a similar situation.

The Fayette County BLA, which has 135 paying members, has been in existence since 1969, according to Joe Massie. It was reorganized in 1987. Their meetings sometimes host as many as 70 miners and their family members.

John Cline, a lawyer who represents miners and widows with federal black lung claims, says the Fayette County chapter has served as a kind of hub for the national Black Lung Association for years. Joe Massie works on the national level, and a former president of the local association, Mike South, became president of the national organization in the 1990s.

“During those years they worked very hard and very closely with the UMW and the Department of Labor to get the legal definition of black lung rewritten to include obstructive lung disease,” says Cline.

“They continue to try to bring attention to the problem of the increase in black lung that has been going on for the past 15 years, particularly among younger miners.”

After the passage of the sweeping Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 — the direct result, in part, of Black Lung Association organizing — there was better enforcement of dust standards and black lung declined. Then in about 1995, that trend turned around and the number of miners with the disease began to climb once again.

About 1,500 former miners die of the disease every year, according to the United Mine Workers.

“We have quite a few that are filing,” says Nancy. “We find that a lot of the ones that are filing are the younger ones. We have members as young as 50 years old that have complicated pneumoconiosis. And it is increasing. It is not decreasing.”

She advises younger miners to get a doctor’s record going now, with regular X-rays and pulmonary tests.

“We find that these younger miners that work in all this coal dust are in great danger and need to have an X-ray, but they are afraid to get an X-ray because they think they will lose their job.

“But it’s a devastating disease to have,” she warns. “It doesn’t get any better. It only gets worse.”

The Nicholas County BLA meets on the fourth Thursday of every month, except in December, from 4 to 7 p.m. at Summersville City Hall.

The Fayette County BLA meets on the third Tuesday of every month from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Robinson Annex at New River Health in Scarbro.

Questions or donations to Nicholas County Black Lung Association can be directed to Linda Neff at 304-872-2022. Call 304-469-3235 for information about the Fayette chapter.

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