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Q&A: NPR Reporter Finds Underreported Black Lung Cases in Appalachia

Benny Becker/Ohio Valley ReSource
Branham wears reflective mining pants in his home in Elkhorn City, Ky. Branham has advanced stage black lung and was forced to quit mining earlier this year.

NPR revealed this week that more coal miners in Appalachia are suffering from black lung than National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports. Inside Appalachia Host Jessica Lilly spoke with NPR investigative reporter Howard Berkes about the points raised in his report.

Howard Berkes Interview Highlights

On Why All Americans Should Care

Black lung, generally has cost tax payers and coal companies over $40 billion in benefits paid to sick coal miners since the 1970s, and if there is indeed this large spike that we have identified at NPR that NIOSH is now talking about, that means that there will be many more coal miners seeking benefits and one of the things that you hear from black lung clinics is that these miners are younger. They're in their 30s and 40s and they have progressive massive fibrosis, the worst stage of black lung. You used to see that only in miners in their 60s and 70s, and because they're younger the benefits that they're going to need they may need longer - they may live longer. Also there is no cure for progressive massive fibrosis. It's fatal. The only thing you can do if you're healthy enough is get a lung transplant. Well, lung transplants are very expensive, costing over half a million dollars. With coal mining companies going bankrupt and not being able to pay black lung benefits that they're supposed to pay, this ends up falling on tax payers on the Federal Black Lung Trust Fund, so this disease will end up costing tax payers lots of money to take care of these miners.

Now, the other reason people should care is because these are human beings who did a job that was essentially geared toward providing power to all Americans. We have a country that was built on the power that coal provided during the industrial revolution and later. So these miners have done a job that we've all benefited from and they have suffered horribly as a result of this illness that they are getting, and so it seems to me that's something that not only we should care about but that we all have a share in.

Listen to an extended interview here:

On Living and Dying with Black Lung

This is a terrible disease. One miner described watching his grandfather die of black lung. He watched his father die of black lung. He has a combination of silicosis and he says, "I'm going to suffocate to death. I'm just going to slowly, slowly, slowly lose the ability to breath and one day I won't be able to take another breath. I will suffocate."

I've talked to miners who talk about, it feels like you have a sack of sand in your chest. You just can't get enough air and family members spouses who've talked about dreams they had for retirement and not being able to travel and not being able to really do much of anything, and grandfathers not being able to do the simple wonderful thing of picking up a grandchild because they don't have enough energy, or chasing the kid around the yard, or mowing the lawn, or cooking dinner, or talking to reporters. We've had miners who almost collapse because just talking requires so much effort. I just really feel for these miners who generally worked really hard physical jobs, and that's one of the reasons miners talk about loving that work. It was tough physically, really challenging, and this disease strikes them down. It makes them unable to do even the simplest things. It just it destroys them and it destroys whatever lives they and their families had hoped to have.

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