Inside Public Integrity

Published — November 18, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Remarkable public response to ‘Breathless and Burdened’ as its impact continues

Readers tell us they hope Center investigation into denial of benefits to sick coal miners leads to long-term reforms


The public reaction to our black lung investigation, “Breathless and Burdened“, has been as extraordinary as the initial political impact.

Produced in collaboration with ABC News, The Center’s year-long investigation revealed how lawyers and doctors retained by coal companies have played a crucial role in helping defeat the legitimate benefit claims of miners sick and dying of black lung disease. Here is what’s happened since our report was published in late October:

  • Members of Congress started crafting legislation with the help of the U.S. Labor Department to reform the black lung benefits program, using the Center’s stories as a guide. According to Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., the system didn’t work for ailing miners: “Their government failed them as well as their company failing. So we have, I think, an abiding obligation to right this wrong.”
  • Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins University Medicine announced it was suspending its program of reading X-rays for black lung, pending a review. The government agency that certifies doctors to read X-rays for black lung issued a statement saying it was “deeply disturbed” by the findings of our investigation. The agency, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), said, “In light of the recent troubling reports, NIOSH applauds the decision of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to investigate its [black lung X-ray reading] service and offers whatever assistance we can provide.”
  • Two congressmen asked the Labor Department’s inspector general to investigate the problems raised in the Center’s reports. In the meantime, they wrote, they will work “to ensure that those who have been improperly denied benefits will have another opportunity at securing fair treatment.”

The public response to our reporting includes emails, phone calls and letters from miners and their families, lawyers, government officials, reporters, public health experts and ordinary citizens from all walks of life. These responses have heaped praise on reporter Chris Hamby for his painstaking investigative work.

There have also been many newspaper editorials along the lines of the Lexington Herald-Leader: “Even for an industry that’s notorious for dodging its responsibilities, a yearlong investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News produced revelations that are shocking and repugnant.”

A number of lawyers wrote to say, for example:

  • “Wow! Just incredible work. Congratulations. I am not shocked it happened, but I am shocked it got out and was reported so well.”
  • “Masterful. You nailed it.”
  • “A heartbreaking story, as well as a terrific reporting. As a lawyer I’m ashamed of Jackson Kelly [The industry’s law firm cited in our reporting]. As someone who works on coal issues, though, I see this as part of a familiar pattern of coal companies screwing the miners they pretend to care about.”

As one government official said, “I just wanted to thank you for the outstanding job you did on this investigation. I really feel our coal miners have won a huge victory thanks to you.”

Perhaps the most meaningful reaction has come from family members of coal miners:

  • “Thank you for taking on the coal companies and their system of perpetuating unsafe working conditions and subsequently denying miners their benefits. My grandfather was denied black lung benefits many years ago; like many of the miners, he was too proud to beg for something he had earned and so he never appealed. He passed away seven years ago. Again, many thanks to you for shining a light on one of the many injustices perpetuated by the coal companies.”
  • “My father has been a coal miner in southwest Virginia since he was 17. He is now 57. On behalf of all families and friends of coal miners, I wanted to thank you for your incredible work with the ‘Breathless and Burdened’ series. To refer to that series as an excellent piece of journalism would be a very serious understatement. I look forward to following your work for many years to come!”

Overall, the reactions can be summed up with this public comment:

“You did a fantastic job with this series, and the result is so moving that I expect it will influence how black lung benefits get awarded in the future. This is the kind of journalism that leads to policy change! … The series is a perfect combination of meticulous research and wrenching stories of miners and their families. Thank you for putting in the many, many hours — the result is well worth it!”

I want to add my thanks to reporter Hamby and his editors, fact-checkers, and Web team, along with our ABC partners, for this landmark Center for Public Integrity investigation.

Thank you all for your responses.

Until next week,

Read more in Inside Public Integrity

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