Looking At Black Lung And Racism In The Mountains
In Appalachia, we’re all too familiar with black lung disease, and how it takes the breath away from coal miners. For a time, it seemed black lung was going away, thanks to tougher mine safety regulations. Now it's seeing a resurgence.
There is another problem that doesn’t seem to have gone away, either, and that is racism. It shows itself in places you never would have thought of, including in the names given to rock climbing routes in West Virginia’s New River Gorge.
On this week’s episode of Inside Appalachia, we take a look at both issues.
In the 1960s, miners organized a movement to end black lung. They convinced Congress to pass new laws that were supposed to make the chronic lung disease a thing of the past. But black lung has come roaring back, and it may be worse now than ever.
Some people think black lung is back because there haven’t been enough regulations that limit miners’ exposure to silica dust. WVPB’s Brittany Patterson and Dave Mistich recently reported that Bob Murray, a coal executive who has long fought against mine safety regulations, is now dying of black lung disease and seeking federal benefits.
Two years ago, the Department of Labor reported nearly 5,000 coal miners have been diagnosed with black lung disease since 1970. Almost half of these cases have been in the last 20 years.
The numbers are staggering. Many of these men and women applied for medical benefits, but that can take years. Often, coal companies and insurance agents fight these cases, keeping miners from the medical treatments they need.
Robert Bailey was one of those with firsthand knowledge of how long and cumbersome this process was. He died last year. Five weeks before he passed away, he spoke with Jessica Lilly. He told her he was concerned that there aren’t enough protections for miners.
“I know a lot of them does a lot of things for the money, and they’re offered a lot of money to meet certain goals,” Bailey said. “But you can meet a goal today that will take you out of this world tomorrow.”
Eventually, Bailey was approved for medical benefits, and he had a double lung transplant. It added a few years to his life, which he said he was grateful to have, because it allowed him to spend more time with his family.
Bailey was a coal miner for 36 years. He was 65 years old when he died.
In the years leading up to his death, Bailey was a champion for coal miners. He wanted Congress to make it easier for miners to receive black lung benefits.
In the end, Bailey’s lung transplant was approved just after the coal company he worked for, Patriot Coal, declared bankruptcy. So, the money for his transplant came from the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which covers black lung medical benefits for former employees of bankrupt coal companies.
It is funded by taxes on coal companies.
Coal companies have been asking Congress to reduce these taxes and roll back a myriad of Obama-era regulations. They argue that it makes mining more expensive.
One of the most outspoken coal company executives is Murray. His coal company, Murray Energy, filed for bankruptcy last fall.
Murray himself has now filed for black lung benefits. At the time this show was recorded, Murray’s health was reported to be in decline, and it’s not clear how long he has to live.
Miners Grapple With Black Lung And Their Futures
No one can tell the story of a miner with black lung better than the miners themselves. Seventeen miners told NPR's Howard Berkes and Ohio Valley ReSource reporter Benny Becker how black lung has drastically changed their lives, their communities and their families.
Black Lung And The Coronavirus
Coal miners like Danny Smith and Greg Kelley are even more vulnerable now, during the pandemic. COVID-19 compromises the respiratory systems of even the healthiest people, but for miners with black lung disease, it could easily be a death sentence. Our southern coalfields reporter Caitlin Tan brings us this story.
Racism In The Mountains
Nine-year-old Zion Bullock sat down with his mother Ronda Taylor Bullock, to have a tough conversation about racism. Bullock is the co-founder of “We Are,” a Durham, North Carolina-based non-profit committed to anti-racist education. She focuses on teaching children of all skin colors how to talk about racism.
Bullock said she was inspired to teach children to talk about racism, largely because she wanted to help make the world safer, and more accepting, for her son. Their conversation was produced by WUNC’s Liz Schlemmer.
Rock Climbing Faces Racism
The New River Gorge in West Virginia boasts some of the best climbing anywhere. For decades, it’s attracted climbers from all over the world, who come here and create new climbing routes.
The first people to climb these routes, known as the “first ascensionists” in climber lingo, have the privilege of naming the routes.
Over the last few months, climbers asked the New River Alliance of Climbers to change some route names to get rid of racist and offensive language.
We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from WUNC, Appalachia Health News, a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center and West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Southern Coalfields Reporting Project which is supported by a grant from the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.
Our theme music is by Matt Jackfert. Other music this week was provided by Tyler Childers, and the Stoney Mountain Bluegrass Band
Roxy Todd is our producer. Eric Douglas is our associate producer. Our executive producer is Andrea Billups. Kelley Libby edited our show this week. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Zander Aloi also helped produce this episode.
You can find us on Twitter @InAppalachia.
You can also send us an email to InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org.
Inside Appalachia is a production of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.