BIG STONE GAP — Doctors, attorneys, legislative advisors and coal miners were among those gathered Friday to discuss the growth of mining-related ailments.

Panelists discussed black lung and progressive massive fibrosis during the event, held at Mountain Empire Community College. It was jointly hosted by U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, Stone Mountain Health Services and MECC.

A recent American Journal of Public Health study states that black lung cases are at a 25-year high, and that one in five central Appalachian miners who have worked at least 25 years currently suffer from the disease.

“The largest cluster of complicated black lung cases have been found in central Appalachia,” said Warner in a video played during the event.

The event included one panel discussing the black lung claims process and another panel focused on the impact of rock dust, which is thought to be one cause of the rise in diagnoses.

On the first panel, retired coal miner John Robinson talked about living with the disease. He tearfully described the difficulty of playing with his granddaughter. “It hurt that I couldn’t play with her the way I wanted,” said Robinson.

Robinson, who was diagnosed with black lung at age 47, described the disease as “push mowing your yard with a pillow over your face.”

Bradley Johnson, site manager and lay representative for Stone Mountain Health Services, talked about the initial steps for filing a black lung claim.

When filing a claim, be very detailed with work history and medical conditions, he said. A chest X-ray, arterial blood gas and lung-related heart disabilities are among the things Johnson suggests miners or their widows submit to the Department of Labor. “Get a paper trial going early and develop that evidence,” said Johnson.

Wes Addington from Appalachian Citizens Law Center was the final panelist of the group. “Proving that you have black lung isn’t enough in the federal system,” said Addington.

Addington explained that with black lung being a latent and progressive disease, sometimes a miner isn’t considered “impaired enough” to receive benefits. Other issues addressed by Addington were time restrictions for miners and widows.

The second panel discussed why they believe there is a rise in black lung and progressive massive fibrosis.

It was explained that while the amount of coal dust has decreased, the amount of silica in the dust has risen. It is believed the increase is related to rock dust. With many of the larger coal seams already mined, miners are cutting though more rock. The rock is made up of silica.

Other discussions included ways to prevent retaliation against a miner who begins to seek medical attention, how to make mine conditions safer and changing bankruptcy laws to ensure that pensions are saved.

Overall, panelists reiterated the importance of keeping a paper trail and using whatever preventative and safety measures are available.