Unique law firm in Eastern Kentucky faces flood recovery costs

A nonprofit law firm whose work includes representing coal miners seeking benefits for black lung disease is struggling to recover after being damaged in record flooding in eastern Kentucky on last month.

Muddy water flooded the Appalachian Citizens Law Center office in downtown Whitesburg, where the North Fork of the Kentucky River reached its highest level on record on July 28.

The flood destroyed computers and furniture, damaged the ground floor and washed away part of the parking lot and embankment behind the center’s 1932 building.

“The devastation is so extreme,” said Wes Addington, director of the legal center.

The floods also affected staff members. Two of the three lawyers handling black lung cases at the center have faced extensive flood damage to homes.

Staff members also assisted flood-affected customers.

Lawyers for the center have asked for extensions in some cases as they deal with the disaster, but Addington said he doesn’t think anyone’s legal case will suffer as a result of the disaster.

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Flash flood damaged drywall removed from Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky. Ryan C. Hermens [email protected]

The center moved its operations to a small rented house so that it could continue to serve clients. But the center faces significant costs to clean and repair its main office.

The basement was cleaned and treated for mold, and a contractor was due to finish Monday with five days of the office interior drying out.

However, the building needs electrical work and the ground floor will need to be rebuilt. Experts will also need to assess the structural integrity of the building and the need to buttress the embankment externally to protect the office from future flooding.

Addington said the recovery work has so far cost around $20,000. The center derives most of its budget from grants and donations, so it will need more to recover from the flooding, Addington said.

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Mike Gilmer installs an electrical outlet at the Appalachian Citizens Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky., Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, after it was damaged by a flash flood last week. Ryan C.Hermens [email protected]

The center provides free legal services to minors with black lung and their widows.

Black lung is an incurable disease caused by breathing coal and rock dust produced during mining. It impairs a person’s ability to breathe and leads to premature death.

Federal rules lowered the prevalence of the disease from 1969 through the late 1990s, but researchers began observing a rebound in black lung in the early 2000s in central Appalachia, including eastern Kentucky. .

Researchers have pointed to a number of possible causes, including miners working longer hours, creating longer dust exposure; more mining of thinner coal seams, which requires cutting more rock and therefore producing more silica; and the cheating of the coal companies.

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center also pursues policies and lawsuits in other areas, including mining safety and health, environmental protection, ongoing costs of extractive industries such as coal mining , landowner rights, toxic waste disposal, clean water and sustainable development. energy.

In recent years, the work has involved asking for money to recover abandoned surface mines and develop the economy; helping Martin County residents seek improvements in the beleaguered local water supply system; and work to hold coal companies to account for environmental violations.

This story was originally published August 23, 2022 8:24 a.m.