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Man Who Fought Against Rules That Protect Miners Applies For Black Lung Benefits

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

One of the country's most influential coal executives has black lung disease. Bob Murray, founder of Murray Energy, long fought rules aimed at preventing the debilitating disease. Here's more from Dave Mistich and Brittany Patterson of West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley Resource.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Bob Murray says he's been mining coal since he was a teenager in the 1950s. In 1988, he founded Murray Energy, the largest privately owned coal mining company in the country. After years of criticizing his competitors for shedding debts and liabilities by declaring bankruptcy, in October of last year, Murray Energy did the same. The company cited increasingly tough market conditions for coal. Murray no longer owns the company, but he serves on its board. Last fall, Murray told NPR he had a lung condition. The hissing sound you hear is from a stream of oxygen he says he needs to survive.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOB MURRAY: It's idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, IPF. And it is not related to my work in the industry. It's - they've checked for that.

MISTICH: But now, on a Labor Department form, he says his diagnosis is from years of working underground, first as a miner and then later while supervising operations. We confirmed the authenticity of Murray's claim documents through the department's online portal. When we called Murray this week, he wouldn't let us record the conversation. But he did say he's entitled to the federal benefits he's applied for.

BRITTANY PATTERSON, BYLINE: It wasn't that long ago that experts thought black lung was nearly eradicated. But today, Appalachia is seeing a deadly resurgence of the most severe form of black lung. Wes Addington is an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center, a nonprofit law firm in eastern Kentucky that represents coal miners seeking federal black lung benefits.

WES ADDINGTON: Today in 2020, we're seeing more miners with more advanced black lung than the country has ever seen. And yet the industry, over the past 10 to 20 years, has consistently fought against any regulation that would try to limit the amount of dust that miners breathe.

PATTERSON: He says that includes Murray. In 2014, Murray Energy spearheaded a lawsuit against the Obama administration over a federal rule that strengthened control of the coal dust that causes black lung. The company argued it would be too expensive. The lawsuit didn't succeed. But then in 2017, Murray found a new ally - President Donald Trump. Here he is speaking on Fox Business in April 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MURRAY: He is an absolutely wonderful president.

PATTERSON: The outspoken climate denier and a 16-point deregulatory wish list to Trump administration officials. Among the requests - overhaul the agency that regulates mine health and safety and weaken rules to protect miners from coal dust. Murray claimed those tighter regulations would cost the industry thousands of jobs. That request has not been fulfilled.

MISTICH: In his claim for benefits, Murray says he's near death. Experts say getting approval for black lung benefits can take years. Even if he passes away and the claim is later approved, his wife would receive benefits for life.

For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich.

PATTERSON: And I'm Brittany Patterson in Morgantown, W.Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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