Steve Sanders ’78 loves the hills of eastern Kentucky, where he has spent his entire career advocating for people affected in some way by the coal mining industry.
But living and working in Appalachia was not his original plan. A native of Cincinnati, Sanders had worked in eastern Kentucky during and after college at the University of Cincinnati before entering Vanderbilt Law School. While visiting friends there during a school break, he discovered the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, a legal aid organization in Prestonburg, Kentucky, that serves a 37-county area. Sanders interned at AppalReD, as the organization is known, in summer 1977 and joined its permanent legal staff after graduation in 1978. “It was interesting work,” he said. “I liked the lawyers, and I was excited by the possibilities.”
More than 35 years later, Sanders is still enthusiastic about his work. After practicing with AppalReD for 25 years, he left in 2002 to help John Rosenberg, then-director of AppalReD, found a new legal advocacy organization, the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. The ACLC focuses on the coal industry’s impact on the region and its people. For the past 13 years, Sanders and his small legal staff, based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, have represented coal miners in cases related to mine safety and disability due to black lung, a disease that results from breathing coal dust as well as persons in Kentucky and Virginia whose homes, land and water are threatened or damaged by coal mining operations.
Sanders was in residence at the law school February 10-12 as Vanderbilt’s 2014-15 Social Justice Fellow, sponsored by the Social Justice Program. In his February 10 lecture, “Dark as a Dungeon: Justice for both the Miners and the Mountains,” he discussed the many difficulties coal miners have encountered in claiming disability benefits, largely because they lack legal representation. In contrast, well-financed coal companies are represented by experienced counsel—counsel that can sometimes be aggressive to the point of acting unethically. Sanders discussed cases, for example, in which a law firm representing coal companies failed to disclose medical evidence in their possession that established miners’ entitlement to black lung benefits. Experts, too, can be unfair, Sanders has found. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor took the unusual step of ordering officials handling black lung claims not to rely on opinions rendered by a Johns Hopkins doctor whose work for coal companies helped lead to benefit denials to thousands of miners over two decades.
Sanders estimates that black lung disability cases now constitute approximately 40 percent of the ACLC’s caseload. “These people need a lawyer to represent them, and the coal companies can retain firms experienced at fighting these claims,” Sanders said.
The fact that Sanders was able to establish a legal advocacy organization to address environmental, land use, and mine safety and health issues reflects a change in attitudes toward the coal industry in eastern Kentucky as well as recognition of the damage caused by decades of environmentally detrimental mining practices. “In the 1960s, when surface mining first became more popular, there were few environmental regulations,” Sanders explained. “This area has very steep hills, and mining operators would create a level bench for surface mining by pushing trees and soil down into the valleys, causing flooding and other problems.”
Efforts to help people whose property was threatened by mining operations had long been hampered by two factors: the power of the coal industry as the major source of jobs in the region and the prevalence of “broad form deeds”—mineral severance deeds used in the early 1900s before strip mining was used in eastern Kentucky, that enabled the buyer to obtain the mineral rights to their property, typically at a low cost, while the seller retained ownership of their property’s surface. The deeds gave buyers of mineral rights extensive rights to use the surface to extract the minerals. Generations later, landowners who sued mining companies for property damage caused by strip mining found that courts almost always sided with the mineral owners. “People didn’t understand that the seller had waived the right to recover for any damage to the surface of the land when they sold their mineral rights,” Sanders said.
Laws favorable to mine operators, such as a law exempting mines of less than two acres from a comprehensive permitting process, destroyed homes and the environment. Sanders successfully represented a family whose house was demolished by a landslide after an unscrupulous mining company set up what he describes as “a string of two-acre mines” on an unstable mountainside. “These people were very poor, and their home was all they had,” he said. “We recovered an award for them, but it was a hard case to prove.”
Sanders is also proud of a case in which he successfully represented a miner who was fired after refusing to go into a mine he considered unsafe. “The sandstone roof had cracked and was likely to crash down,” Sanders said. “They had had some falls in that mine. The company had an obligation to address his safety concerns.”
During his three days in residence at Vanderbilt, Sanders also gave a presentation to the faculty and met individually with students interested in pursuing careers in social justice advocacy. He joined a roster of outstanding public interest attorneys chosen in previous years for the Fellowship. In one distinction, however, Sanders stands alone: he is the first Social Justice Fellow to be a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School.