I’m Evan Barret Smith a staff attorney at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.
As lawyers and policy advocates, we indirectly contribute to improving our region’s health. For our clients who are coal miners, we support their efforts to make their mines safer by representing them in whistleblower litigation and policy advocacy. If they already have black lung, we represent them in claims for federal black lung benefits, which provide coverage for the costs of medical treatment for black lung. We also represent citizens’ groups concerned about the health impacts of environmental problems such as large-scale surface mining and the dumping of radioactive waste from fracking operations.
Black lung is a depressing reality in our region. But it is inspiring to enable our clients to afford the medical treatment that they need—even including lung transplants. To choose one story, I’m proud of our work in reducing the coal-mine dust that miners are allowed to breathe as a part of their job. The Federal Coal Mine Health & Safety Act of 1969 created the first federal dust limits and provided that by 1972 the level would be 2.0 mg/m3. Decades later, it was clear that far too many miners were still getting black lung. In September 2009, we filed a rule-making petition on behalf of a Letcher County coal miner. The petition was granted, and in the end, resulted in the 2014 dust rule—the first reduction in respirable dust standards since 1972. The process was long and the final rule was not as protective as what we and the public health experts sought, but the policy change will prevent hundreds of cases of black lung and result in a $12.1-million-dollar net benefit. The wonky details matter, but that’s not what’s inspiring—what’s inspiring is that we could help a local coal miner and others change a law that they knew wasn’t protecting them.
When we talk about what holds Appalachian Kentucky back we often talk about things like infrastructure or education. When you get to know the region’s individuals who are at the brink of “breaking out” and seizing new opportunities, however, others’ health problems often take on determinative role. For example, when a student must care for a relative with health problems, this understandably impairs her education. And while in other places, older individuals often use the financial security that comes with retirement to experiment with new business or civic ventures, in our area, that energy is more often spent going to doctor appointments. That drag on our region’s development is as significant a headwind as anything else that we face.
Evan B. Smith, a ninth-generation Appalachian, is an attorney at Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, KY where he represents coal miners and their families in black lung and mine safety cases.