Planning the future
Appalachia — to those of us born and reared here, the term brings visions of misty mountains, green valleys, winding waterways and, of course, family.
In many of those families, images of the coal miner heading to work long before daylight or returning long after, are what epitomizes life in these hills.
With a regional loss of more than 6,000 coal jobs in the last two years, and more layoffs reportedly to come, those images of men heading to work carrying lighted safety helmets and dinner buckets are seemingly passing into the annals of history.
For generations, coal mining has supported eastern Kentucky families. Without it, where do our families now look for support?
That’s a question that will be raised and examined on Monday when local and state leaders meet with a concerned public at the upcoming “SOAR” (Shaping Our Appalachian Region) planning summit, to be held in Pikeville at the Easten Kentucky Expo Center.
In recent meetings hosted by AEP Kentucky Power, a message of “build it and they will come” was presented. Build factories, build schools, build recreation and entertainment facilities, health care facilities, and more. The message being, if it is here, those from the outside will want to move in and build lives.
Others say the region’s future lies in tourism — create a new Gatlinburg, a new Branson. Market the region’s other abundant natural resources — music and craftsmanship.
Either way, a spirit of entrepreneurship will need to be fostered. Though that spirit does exist here, long years of depending on coal mining and the “company store” has not, perhaps, given way to encouragement of striking out on one’s own.
The people of this region are strong. It takes courage to crawl into the belly of a mountain, and to operate heavy machinery on the precipices of its very top. It takes courage, also, to watch that miner head off to his duties knowing that tragic accidents do occur and that one of those accidents could claim that miner this very day.
Coal mining isn’t for everyone and many have chosen to leave the area and its natural beauty behind in search of occupations less dangerous and less harmful to health and environment.
We, however, need every hand we can get on deck as we come together to discuss and formulate a plan for coal country’s future once the mining stops and the hardhats and dinner buckets are placed away for good.
Darts and Laurels
A laurel to Big Sandy “Care Club” students for their recent service to the homeless.
A dart to continued drug trafficking in Johnson County.
A laurel to the JCSO and “Operation Fall Harvest” for putting a stop to some of the illegal drug activity.
A dart to the loss of a young life — tragic and untimely.
A laurel to completion of the new JCHS basketball court — beautiful job!
Darts and Laurels
A laurel to Van Lear’s own ‘Queen of Country’ Loretta Lynn and her U.S. Medal of Freedom Award — always proud!
A dart to “mystery odors” — wherever they are!
A laurel to Casey Family Programs and the “hope” being instilled in our community.
A dart to too much emphasis on “Black Friday” shopping — enjoy family and give thanks!
A laurel to the Kentucky Unemployment Bridge Program — helping to save homes!
Black-lung victims cheated; industry avoids paying miners
The cutthroat tactics used to deny benefits to sick and dying victims of black lung should dash any illusions about miners having a friend in coal companies.
Even for an industry that’s notorious for dodging its responsibilities, a year long investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News produced revelations that are shocking and repugnant.
Reporters documented a pattern by the industry’s “go-to” law firm, Jackson Kelly, based in Charleston, W.Va., of withholding X-rays, pathology reports and other evidence of black lung in miners seeking benefits through the 40-year-old federal program.
Jackson Kelly lawyers withheld critical evidence not just from judges and miners, records show, but from the firm’s own expert witnesses. As a result, even when the Jackson Kelly lawyers knew there was strong medical evidence of black lung, they successfully argued against awarding benefits to suffering miners and their families, who can’t afford big-time lawyers, according to the report.
In rare instances when a judge or a miner’s lawyer insisted that the firm turn over all its evidence, the reporters found, Jackson Kelly typically settled. This allowed the miner to receive benefits while ending scrutiny of the firm’s deplorable tactics.
Jackson Kelly, which insists it did nothing wrong because the medical records were part of its work product and therefore not subject to disclosure, has nationwide offices, including one in Lexington. One of the firm’s West Virginia lawyers lost his license for a year as a result of withholding black-lung evidence and three others were scolded by West Virginia’s Lawyer Disciplinary Board.
An administrative law judge’s ruling that Jackson Kelly had committed “fraud on the court” is under appeal before the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.
Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore responded more forcefully to revelations that one of its units had become a coal industry tool.
The prestigious institution suspended an X-ray-reading program headed by Dr. Paul Wheeler after the Center for Public Integrity and ABC reported that Wheeler had found not a single case of severe black lung in the more than 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which he offered an opinion. A finding of severe or advanced black lung automatically triggers benefits. Wheeler has testified that the last time he recalled finding a case of severe black lung was in “the 1970s or the early ‘80s.”
Yet, administrative law judges gave great weight to Wheeler’s findings, which proved lucrative as coal companies paid a premium for the Hopkins brand. “For an X-ray reading, the university charges up to 10 times the rate miners typically pay their physicians,” the center reports.
In other words, rather than pay, say, $8,500 a year to an employee who will slowly smother because of his years working in dust-filled mines, the industry would rather pay lawyers and doctors to cheat sick miners of benefits. With friends like that, who needs enemies?
Black lung has been on the rise, even as coal production in Appalachia declines, which makes this reporting especially timely.
In response, U.S. Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Joe Courtney, D-Conn., called on the Labor Department’s inspector general to investigate whether miners and their families are being cheated. Some in Congress are showing renewed interest in enacting more effective dust-control laws.
As disturbing as these revelations are, they fit an all too familiar pattern: The coal industry always shifts its costs onto others, whether it’s a miner paying for poor workplace hygiene with his lungs or the public paying for coal industry shortcuts with poisoned water and air, birth defects and disease.
— Lexington Herald Leader
Darts and Laurels
A laurel to the Johnson County Eighth Grade Eagles for their state win — go, champs!
A dart to yet unanswered questions regarding Christina Barnett’s death.
A laurel to BSACAP’s home energy assistance program — keeping families warm!
A dart to early visits from Old Man Winter — brrr!
A laurel to teamwork between the county fiscal court and city utilities waterline extension program.