Providing coal miners with information concerning health and safety issues, as well as creating a dialogue between miners, lawmakers, attorneys, health care providers, and other officials was the focus of a public meeting Dec. 2 at the Mullens Opportunity Center.

A vast variety of booklets and other information was provided, along with a panel discussion that included Rep. Nick Rahall; Dr. Edward L. Petsonk of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health; Joe Carter, president of United Mine Workers District 17; John Cline, attorney; Rocky McKinney, Mine Safety and Health Administration Mine Academy; among others.

Debbie Johnson, of Bluestone Health Clinic, explained how the clinic staff can assist miners in filing for black lung benefits.

Officials explained the lengthy, complicated, and, most often, frustrating process for trying to obtain black lung benefits.

Dr. Petsonk, who is conducting a national “survey” to determine the prevalence and severity of lung disease among coal miners, said the number of lung diseases in miners are increasing, progressing rapidly, and are now being found in young miners, some in their 30s.

“I thought I might see one case in my lifetime,” he said, adding he has seen numerous advanced cases.

The “hot spot” for miner-related lung diseases — pneumoconiosis, silicosis, and emphysema — includes an area that encompasses connecting counties in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western Virginia, the lung specialist said.

There are no cures for the respiratory illnesses caused by coal mining, Dr. Petsonk explained, but there are available treatments. He encouraged miners to obtain regular chest x-rays, as well as avail themselves of available treatments.

A few miners complained — some with obviously congested, choking coughs — that the system is designed to keep them from getting the benefits to which they are entitled.

Laughter could be heard across the gym when MSHA dust sampling methods were discussed. The samples are collected in a manner that does not reflect the true amount of dust in which miners work, the miners agreed. Some of the miners contend the samples are collected in airways in the mines where most of the dust is blown away, and not in areas where miners actually work. Samples with higher readings are deemed inaccurate by officials, the miners told panelists.

Rahall noted he wants to change the federal law so that a widow does not have to “reprove” her husband had black lung disease upon his death, even though he was awarded benefits prior to his death.

Current laws, which randomly cut off benefits to recipients, are inequitable and unreasonable, Rahall contended.

Rahall also discussed the MINER Act, signed into law in June, which was created to improve safety conditions inside the mine in the wake of a year “of unrelenting sorrow in our coalfields.” By Nov. 5, 45 coal miners had died across the United States this year, Rahall said.

The new federal law requires more oxygen along escape routes in the mine, communication devices that link miners to rescuers on the surface, wireless tracking to help locate trapped miners, better preparedness for rescue teams, continuously updated emergency response plans, and mandates accidents be reported within 15 minutes, Rahall said.

He wants to see future laws require the prohibition of belt entries to draw fresh air into a mine and the creation of employee refuges.

“Under this administration,” Rahall said, “MSHA has operated in alliance with operators. It has not been the check it is supposed to be under the law.

“But we now have a new administrator, Richard Stickler. He has pledged to change direction at MSHA. I hope that he does. I hope that his actions at MSHA live up to his name and that he is, in fact, a stickler for the safety of America’s miners as he moves to implement the requirements of the MINER Act.

“That act is a good, solid step, but it is just one step in the effort needed to make our mines safer,” Rahall emphasized. “Inspections are critical. Enforcement is essential. And the ability of miners to stand up for safety, to speak out when they see problems in their work areas, to report violations without fear of reprisal, must be protected.”

“Miners who weren’t able to make it to the event can pick up important information at the MOC about their rights and protections under the law, and about how they can send ideas to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) about new rules that would be helpful on the job,” emphasized Sam Petsonk, VISTA member, who organized the event. “MSHA is required to consider all credible comments, and to issue reasoned responses incorporating the suggestions into law.”

Miners also participated in lung function testing and had the opportunity to talk with panel members individually.

Future meetings are planned, Sam Petsonk noted.

The meeting was sponsored by Bluestone Health Clinic in Princeton, United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Funds, Volunteers in Service to America, and Rural Appalachian Improvement League.

For more information about miners’ health and safety, drug abuse in the mines, on-the-job injuries, state workers compensation, or other miners’ issues, contact Sam Petsonk, AmeriCorps VISTA, at Rural Appalachian Improvement League, P.O. Box 171, Mullens, WV 25882, or phone 294-6188.

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