By Kerriann Laubach
Ms. Laubach is a student at Washington & Lee University School of Law
As an undergraduate Environmental Studies major and self-proclaimed environmentalist, I have long heard of coal’s negative externalities. Mountaintop removal, fossil fuels, toxic runoff, habitat destruction, and climate change were all familiar evils associated with coal’s environmental impact. My summer at the Appalachian Citizen’s Law Center (ACLC) showed me the dramatic human impact of coal, as well as the interplay between the human and environmental harms.
My introduction to the relationship between poverty and environmental health in Whitesburg came not from work, but from meeting residents when I arrived. Within days, my fellow interns and I were warned against drinking the tap water because of the inconsistency in quality. Notice of mining spills would often not come until after the pollution was widespread. Bottled water was the safer choice for those who could afford it—immediately dividing residents into those who could pay to ensure their health and those who could not. Similarly, we were informed that the river running through town had a no-contact order due to pollution. Eastern Kentucky has many beautiful hiking spots and other natural features; these could certainly be more fully enjoyed without the constant concern of toxic pollutants.
My work at ACLC involved applying the law to such negative impacts of mining. The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center is a nonprofit law firm in eastern Kentucky that specializes in representing coal miners, their families, and others experiencing harms from mining. The firm focuses on three types of cases: black lung, mine safety, and environmental protection and sustainable energy. These three spheres are legally separate, but all result from failings of the coal and energy industries. The legal system compensates those harmed, and ACLC helps its clients navigate the legal maze necessary for recovery.
Black lung litigation, for example, involves a specialized legal system like worker’s compensation. Black lung encompasses a number of pulmonary diseases that result from prolonged breathing of coal mine dust. Under a federal statute, miners can receive compensation (a monthly stipend and coverage of related medical expenses) for disability resulting from these diseases. However, the black lung program is adversarial, meaning coal companies will fight the claims with their own medical evidence. Adverse decisions can then be appealed through a number of administrative and federal judges. Individuals unfamiliar with the system often struggle to develop and present a strong case, particularly when facing experienced coal attorneys with extensive resources. Quality legal representation can therefore make a tremendous difference to coal miners and their families.
ACLC’s clients are not the stereotypical unemployed poor. The organization primarily serves current and former coal miners and their families, meaning clients have had (often steady) employment. Indeed, black lung clients typically have 10-30 years of mining work, yet they can still be financially dependent on the black lung benefits—particularly the medical coverage. Most of ACLC’s clients have been harmed by the very employment they gave so many years to; some end up giving their lives as a result of pulmonary disease or mining accidents. Over the course of my summer, I met clients who had driven hours to get to ACLC. Many of these same clients would then need to travel even more hours to get a quality medical evaluation (or two, or three) for their black lung claim. Unfortunately, legal and medical resources are not always easily accessible in isolated coal towns. Clients’ willingness to travel such distances demonstrates the importance of ACLC’s work across the region.
Coal is moving away from eastern Kentucky, meaning the area will face added challenges in the coming years. Coal companies can provide an unsafe work environment partly because few, if any, alternative employment exists in the area. Working in the mines might lead to painful lung disease or injury or death in any number of mining accidents—but it is at least work. The area has lost thousands of jobs over the last few years as coal companies move out, but no viable replacement industry is moving in. Although environmentalists may hope for coal’s total demise, such change cannot be supported without alternative employment for the families who have worked as miners for many generations. Even during my short time in Whitesburg, though, I recognized the dedication of the community to the area and to moving beyond coal. ACLC is just one of many different groups and organizations committed to revitalizing the region and transitioning to economic independence.
Ideally, miners would not be exposed to risky and harmful working conditions, and energy could be sourced in ways that do not pollute and destroy nearby ecosystems. Unfortunately, our current energy system creates human and environmental externalities across many different industries. Those living in coal regions like eastern Kentucky must suffer dangerous employment, water and air pollution, property damage from mining activities, and many other harms. The legal system—and firms like ACLC—can help those injured seek remedies against the powerful coal companies. Lawyers also work to hold coal companies and others accountable for harms inflicted on others and the environment, even when governments may be unable or unwilling to properly regulate behavior. I am so grateful for the opportunity to work and learn in that capacity with the talented and committed staff at ACLC this past summer.