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Coal produces half of the nation's electricity and rising demand is generating healthy profits for coal companies. Those profits come at a cost for some workers. Coal miners who filed black lung claims faced federal bureaucrats, well-funded lawyers for coal companies, and sometimes years of appeals. It's nearly impossible for miners to find a lawyer to take their cases. But law students at Washington and Lee University in Virginia are evening the odds for miners.

Scott Finn, of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, reports.

SCOTT FINN: For 27 years, Larry Vas(ph) of Craigsville(ph), West Virginia, hauled rock and coal in a truck the size of a two-story house. Now, the short walk across his manicured lawn to the mailbox leaves him gasping for air.

Mr. LARRY VAS (Coal Mine Worker): Give me some oxygen.

FINN: Vas blames black lung disease caused by day after day of breathing rock and coal dust.

Mr. VAS: Yeah - in occasions if they found out the federal mine inspectors, state mine inspector's coming they'd water it down good, the day he was there. Otherwise, when he weren't there you eat the dust. Get dust all the time in this neighborhood(ph).

FINN: He's tried for almost two years to obtain black lung benefits from the federal government with no luck. He can't find a lawyer because there are only about 20 in the country who take black lung claims on a regular basis.

But now, Vas is getting help from law students at Washington and Lee University.

Mr. VAS: Hello.

Ms. VIRGINIA ROGERS(ph) (Law Student, Washington and Lee University): Hey there.

Mr. VAS: Y'all come on in.

FINN: Earlier this month, law student Virginia Rogers visited Vas at home to prepare his case.

Ms. ROGERS: What different kinds of things would you do like, say, on a typical workday, would you?

Mr. VAS: Well, on a typical workday you don't stop. You go from seven until five or whatever - 10 or 12 hours a day. And you continue to, say, haul until you might not haul from the forest from here out to the interstate and then back.

FINN: Vas is 69, but black lung isn't just an old man's disease. More than 30 years ago, the federal government developed rules to limit dust exposure and many doctors thought that black lung would disappear. So researchers were surprised a few years ago to discover black lung in a new generation of miners.

Dr. Robert Cohen runs the nation's leading black lung clinic at Chicago's Stroger Hospital.

Dr. ROBERT COHEN (Division of Occupational and Pulmonary Medicine, John H. Stroger Hospital of Cook County): They found that there were cases of rapidly progressive disease in people who hadn't been working that long - 15, 20 years - who developed huge scars of dense tissue in the lungs mixed up with this pigment and dust that indicate very, very badly damaged lungs.

FINN: Congress created the Federal Black Lung Program in 1969. Workers with black lung can receive medical care in a small monthly stipend. But few qualify. According to the Labor Department, about 4,700 cases were decided last year, but only about 600 miners and their families receive benefits.

In part, that's because a miner's health problems are complicated. Coal company lawyers like Paul Frampton say that dust isn't always to blame.

Mr. PAUL FRAMPTON (Coal Company Lawyer): You and everybody else knows that the number one cause of breathing impairment and disease in the United States is cigarette smoking. And the courts have long hailed that the Federal Black Lung Program is not meant to be a welfare program for cigarette smokers.

FINN: Lawyers for miners say that coal companies drag out these cases deliberately. Mary Natkin helped start the Black Lung Clinic at Washington and Lee 10 years ago. Her students are still fighting some of those original cases. Several miners have died waiting.

Professor MARY NATKIN (Director of the Black Lung Clinic, Washington and Lee University): What's happened is that this is a system that now compensates expert witnesses and lawyers rather than compensating miners who are disabled by black lung.

FINN: Washington and Lee students have won about half the cases that they've taken. But win or lose, Vas says he's grateful.

Mr. VAS: It means everything in the world to me, you know, because if it hadn't been for them I'd had to do it myself, and I know I would have lost if I'd done it myself.

FINN: Black lung is a disease that refuses to go away. And as long as coal miners suffer from it, students at Washington and Lee are helping them to make their case.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Finn in Charleston, West Virginia.

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