CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A non-profit news organization alleged on Tuesday that one of the coal industry's major law firms has repeatedly hidden vital evidence to keep coal miners from winning federal black-lung benefits.
The Center for Public Integrity published what it said were the results of year-long investigation into the handling of black lung cases by the Charleston-based Jackson Kelly law firm.
In what it described as "part of a cutthroat approach to fighting miners' claims," the center said Jackson Kelly lawyers have for years concealed medical reports that, if disclosed, would have helped miners obtain federal compensation for the black lung.
"Jackson Kelly, documents show, over the years has withheld unfavorable evidence and shaped the opinions of its reviewing doctors by providing only what it wanted them to see," said the report, written by investigative reporter Chris Hamby. "Miners, often lacking equally savvy lawyers or even any representation, had virtually no way of knowing this evidence existed, let alone the wherewithal to obtain it."
The center said Tuesday's story is part of a three-part series following up on a 2012 project on the resurgence of black lung disease, done in partnership with NPR News and with additional reporting by The Charleston Gazette.
This new project on black lung benefits was done in partnership with ABC News, which is scheduled to broadcast stories tonight on its "World News" and "Nightline" programs.
Safety and health advocates have long complained that the black lung benefits process is difficult to navigate and stacked against coal miners and their families.
"It's clear those with black lung face too many hurdles in getting their benefits," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "It's deeply frustrating to me, and I'm working to address this injustice and heartbreaking problem through legislation."
The Center for Public Integrity's project was unveiled on the same day that the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case over whether Elk Run Coal Co., represented by Jackson Kelly, committed "fraud on the court" in a black lung benefits case involving a West Virginia coal miner named Gary Fox.