For an increasing number of America's coal miners, the sunset on a career spent underground is being consumed in unrelenting legal battles with coal companies over the cause of their bone-rattling coughs, shortness of breath and difficulty sleeping.
While thousands of miners have been told by their own doctors they have a disabling form of black lung disease, coal companies are fighting that diagnosis and the roughly $1,000-a-month in disability payments they would owe to miners who are proven to be stricken. And the coal companies are winning.
A year-long investigation by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity, to air Wednesday on "World News With Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline," has found a system stacked against coal miners who must devote their limited resources to simultaneously fight the disease and battle coal companies over those disability payments. In all too many cases, it took the miner's death, and the autopsy that followed, to prove what the miner had argued all along – that the cause of his deteriorating health was a disease brought on by the dust he breathed while working under ground.
"It's embarrassing," said U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "It's hurtful. To meet and talk with one of those miners, to go into their home, let them feed you dinner or lunch or whatever and then just listen to them. You can hardly do anything but just cry with rage, with sadness."
The ABC News investigation identifies the cadre of specialists with prestigious affiliations who help the coal companies trump the miners in case after case. They are part of a professional corps of doctors, lawyers and experts that has helped the companies tamp down the vast majority of black lung awards sought by thousands of mine workers who claimed to suffer from black lung.
Get the Full Story: WATCH 'Black Lung: Out of Breath' on ABC News 'World News With Diane Sawyer' at 6:30 p.m. EST Wednesday and 'Nightline' at 12:35 a.m. EST Thursday
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, the trade association that represents more than 300 companies and represents their interests before Congress, declined to comment when reached by phone and would not respond to emailed questions.
A report published today by the Center for Public Integrity investigates another aspect of the uphill battle that has faced coal miners – a battle against one of the nation's most prominent law firms, Jackson Kelly.
Gary Fox, a 25-year coal miner, is featured in the piece. His lawyer, John Cline, has alleged that the firm withheld key evidence in his case for years, leaving him to return to the coal mines to earn a living, even as he grew increasingly sick. The head of the black lung law section for Jackson Kelly declined requests by ABC News and the Center for Public Integrity to be interviewed.
Fox's autopsy ultimately proved in death what he fought to prove in life – that his symptoms were the product of a severe case of black lung disease. Cline called the case a tragic example of a system out of balance.
"In some cases, that's what happened. We haven't been able to establish benefits until they're dead," Cline said. "And it's a shame."
Chris Hamby is a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity.