Thursday, August 21, 2008

A Very Interesting Day

I think today was one of the most special days in my life. I warn you, this post has nothing to do with Football, alcohol, drugs, or women. I've kind of hinted at the fact that I work for the Federal Black Lung Program before. Today was the celebration of the 30th year of the program in Charleston. It was a big deal to say the least. Governor Joe Manchin, congresswoman Shelly More Capito, former congressman Ken Heckler, Assistant Secretary of the Department of Labor (can't remember her name), UMWA president Cecil Roberts, and the two remaining doctors that fought so had to get the legislature to enact the Mine Safety Act of 1969 which led to the creation of the Black Lung program years later were all in attendance.

Being the songwriter that I am, I was asked to write a song for the occasion. The initial idea wasn't very hard for me to come up with as my grandfather died from complications due to his Black Lung disease in 1979. My grandmother received his benefits until she passed in 2004. I have to admit this, I always knew how my grandfather died. But I never knew my grandmother received benefits until I returned to work following her funeral to find her claim on my desk to be terminated. This wasn't a cruel trick by any of my fellow workers, I grabbed a pile of claims that needed inputs and there it was. I think it's kind of fitting and I wouldn't want it any other way. So telling the story of my grandfather and grandmother in the song was the easy part. The hard part was trying to tie it all in with the event. Thankfully, when I was told that the two surviving doctors, Donald Rasmussen and Hawey Wells would be there along with former Congressman Ken Heckler who were really the backbone of the movement to have Black Lung considered a debilitating disease. Those two doctors were instrumental in creating a series of tests to determine the presence of the disease. Creating the standards that are still followed to this day. And tied the song together by saying what a blessing it was for my grandmother to have these benefits. After raising 11 children and being in her fifties, it's a little crazy to think that she should have to start a career. The money helped her live a comfortable life, which is to say that she didn't want for food or shelter. The personal highlight for me was being able to thank these three gentlemen personally before I started the song.

Their efforts weren't accepted by the UMWA, the coal companies (obviously), the West Virginia board of physicians, and the government in general. But these men, despite being ostracized by their colleagues and ignored by the media pushed to get the disease recognized. Their efforts were helped, sadly, by the Farmington, WV mine disaster. This incident drew attention from all over the country.

The legislation was already written and put in front of the US Congress, but many wanted the Black Lung part of the legislation left out because of skepticism about the existence of the disease. But when the miners were trapped underground for over a week, media started talking to other miners and running stories about how large numbers of miners were suffering and the efforts of the doctors. It was a perfect storm and as Cecil Roberts said today the 78 men that died in that mine were heroes. It's very sad, but their death brought comfort and a means to survive to the men and women that followed. I just want you to know that the money these miners and surviving spouses receive isn't a boat load of money. It's fractions of what they brought home when they were working. But the money and the medical benefits they receive is enough to provide the minimum of what they need to survive. And it's the least we can do.

I also want to touch on something I feel a little bad about. I've been more than critical of our Governor about his role in the whole coaching fiasco. But I also want to point out the good he has done in the wake of the Sago incident. It was Joe Manchin that pushed for updates to mine safety and rapid response units following that disaster. He very simply put forth three areas that needed to be addressed: Rapid Response-Coal Companies should immediately contact his office in the event of an emergency so rescue efforts can be coordinated, Communication- Develop a means for trapped miners to communicate their location, situation, etc., and A Means to Sustain Themselves-Oxygen located near the working area so if they do get cut off they would have a means to stay alive until help could arrive. It sounds simple, and it is. But these things were not in place and they were not being worked on to improve until he went to work on them. His straight to the point thinking also was an influence on national mine safety updates. He's a politician and he should be expected to act like one. But he is also a man that was effected by the loss of life in the Farmington disaster. He lost friends and family and he knows first hand the results of what working in the mines can do to a person. For his efforts, I want to thank him and hope he continues to keep an eye on the progress and not let the mines fall back into being less safe ever again.

Oh yeah, if you are reading this, thank a miner. Coal powers your computer.

No comments: