Legislation Languishes in Congress as Miners Fight for their Benefits


Glen Charles, who had been a miner in West Virginia for 42 years, was diagnosed as having black lung, for which he received benefits under the Black Lung Act up to the time of his death in August 2005. Under federal law, surviving spouses of miners who die from the disease are eligible to continue receiving those benefits. But soon after Charles died, his checks stopped arriving, leaving Emma Charles, his 75-year-old widow, financially unstable.

She had to file a claim to continue receiving his benefits, which the Labor Department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges denied.

Under current law, survivors receive benefits only if it is proven that a miner died of complications related to black lung. In Charles’ case, the death certificate listed pneumoniae as the cause of death, due to complications from pneumoconiosis – the medical term for black lung – and two other ailments. However, an administrative law judge that ruled on his widow’s claim set aside the death certificate, and, in an August 2007 decision, concluded on the basis of expert witnesses who reviewed Charles’ medical records that his death was not due to black lung.

The following month, Emma Charles wrote to her congressional representative and senators explaining her situation. In a letter to Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., she noted that he had introduced legislation that would allow her to receive her husband’s black lung benefits, which has languished in the House Labor and Education Committee since February 2007. Similar bills have been introduced four times earlier but have always died in the House.

I have the understanding that you are trying to get the legislature to pass a bill that whenever a coal miner pass away and had been drawing a monthly check the widow would automatically draw a check,” the letter reads. “Please hurry up and get that bill passed.”

Rahall has introduced the same legislation four times since 1999, but it has never made it to a hearing. This legislation is an amendment to the Black Lung Act “requiring eligible survivors of a miner determined to be eligible for black lung benefits to file a new claim or re-file or otherwise revalidates the miner’s claim,” according to the bill language.

The mine workers unions have also been pushing for this specific change and seem positive that the bill will pass in this legislative session. “Now with the Democrats in both the Houses, there is a real possibility that the bill passes and it has gotten additional importance in this session,” Grant Campbell, General Counsel for the United Mine Workers of America said.

But although unions and some coal country constituents are hopeful, congressional insiders think it’s unlikely that the bill will pass in this session.

According to a senior legislative aide in the education and labor committee, they have a busy agenda” and there is no date set for a hearing of this bill as yet. It’s unlikely a date will be set.

Since the beginning of Sunlight’s congressional correspondence FOIA project, we have received scores of letters from black lung claimants, recipients and their survivors, seeking assistance from their elected representatives with their cases. These letters are generally written to members of Congress by constituents and are forwarded on to the Department of Labor’s Office of Administrative Law Judges to follow up on the specific queries constituents have written expressing concern with their benefit claims.

Charles’ widow was one such case Sunlight became aware of through our on-going FOIA project. We recently received, from the Office of Administrative Law Judges, correspondence covering the month of January 2008, which included 22 letters from constituents to various members of Congress seeking help with black lung claimes. Eleven of those were sent to Rahall.