LEE COUNTY, Va. - The federal government published the Byrd Amendments Wednesday, giving miners with black lung disease easier access to benefits.
It's a final ruling on the amendments to the Black Lung Benefits Act, which passed in March 2010.
"We had to roll the windows down and all the dust came in," a miner told us in May 2013.
"My dad worked 38, 39 years in the mines he trained me in the mines," another said.
When we introduced you to these miners back in May 2013, they were struggling to get their black lung disease benefits. "It's an ongoing battle," said Ron Carson, the Black Lung Program Director at Stone Mountain Health Services, in St. Charles, Va.
Now the miners have easier access to benefits. "The Byrd Amendments of 2010, March 23, are some of the strongest legislation I've seen," Carson told us.
The first amendment means miners will no longer have to prove their respiratory ailment is due to the black lung disease and that it arose from a coal mine. Total disability benefits will now be awarded if the miner worked in a mine for at least 15 years and they can show they have a totally disabling respiratory problem.
The second amendment transfers black lung benefits directly to eligible survivors after a miner's death. "We feel like we are on the tip of the iceberg," said Carson. "There are so many miners out there over the years who have felt it's a waste of [their] time to apply for these benefits."
The amendments were law until 1981, when the program ceased to be a compensation program, said Carson. It then became a disability program and the two amendments were eliminated, he said.
Even though re-instating the amendments has helped, the national average of those people getting their benefits is still between 12 and 15 percent according to Carson. He added that the national average was about three percent before the amendments passed. "We have gradually increased the percentage but it's not where we want to be," he said. "But it's sure not where we used to be."
About 12 percent of local miners he's seen collected benefits before, Carson told us, compared to around 42 percent now.
It's still a big issue here. "We live in a hot spot," said Carson. "NIOSH has indicated that Southwest Virginia, Eastern Kentucky, they have scientific documentary proof that our miners are dying and getting sicker at a much younger age."
NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
Black lung disease could be minimized if miners breathed in fewer dangerous particles, he said.
This could be done by using filters and computer monitoring to lower the amount of particles miners inhale, Carson suggested.
Read the whole Black Lungs Benefits Act here.