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Book Details Coal Miners’ Fight For Black Lung Benefits

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Courtesy photo

A 1969 federal law, following the Farmington Mine Disaster, was supposed to improve working conditions in the coal mines, which have long been connected to black lung disease. But, 51 years later, the rate of those with black lung is higher than ever.

The law also created the federal benefits program to compensate those affected, but many miners haven’t received a dime.   

In author Chris Hamby’s new book “Soul Full of Coal Dust: The True Story of an Epic Battle for Justice,” he looks at the black lung benefits program through the eyes of West Virginia miners, detailing their fight for benefits in a system that’s stacked against them. 

Hamby spoke with Eric Douglas about the newly released book. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Tell me how you first jumped into black lung reporting in West Virginia. 

Hamby: I was a cub reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. And we had gotten a report about the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. We got turned on to this one page that was almost a sidebar. It said that of the victims, 24 had enough lung tissue to where they could be examined during autopsy and, of those, 17 had black lung. These included miners who were surprisingly young, had surprisingly little experience. 

We eventually decided that it warranted a deeper look at why this was happening. Why all these years after we enacted a law in 1969 that was supposed to virtually eradicate this disease, we're in a situation where it's in a resurgence. And new research has shown that levels of severe disease are now at the highest that they've ever been in recorded. 

Douglas: Tell me about John Cline, about his work from being a local organizer all the way up to being an attorney who did a David and Goliath type of undertaking. 

Hamby: John is the kind of person that you almost don't believe that people like that exist in the real world. He starts working at this rural medical clinic, which is one of a few that are funded by the federal government to treat and diagnose black lung. He works as a benefits counselor and it's there that he starts to see this pattern of what he believes is manipulating and withholding evidence by Jackson Kelly, the largest law firm that represents employers in a majority of these cases. 

(Hamby reached out to Jackson Kelly for a response to his book and received the following message: 

“The firm received your recent inquiries for interviews on topics covering many years of the firm’s history for your soon-to-be-released book. Given the unambiguous slant in your previously published articles, the summary of your book as already posted on Amazon, and the nature of the questions posed in your emails, we do not believe there is an opportunity for an objective, fair discussion. Jackson Kelly has proudly represented thousands of clients and been engaged in a broad spectrum of important legal issues. Our clients know us for advocacy, excellence, and value.”)

Obviously, he wasn't the only person who did this, but his work has literally changed the way a miner applies for benefits and the legal fight that they go through. I don't want to imply that everything is perfect now in the black lung system by any means. There are still certainly problems and unfairness and inequities. But the change has been remarkable. 

John was pushing reforms that he thought needed to happen when he was starting to represent miners as a lay representative in the early and mid-1990s. And there were certain things that he thought needed to be done to restore basic fairness to the system. It's remarkable that 20 years later his proposal is essentially the law of the land. 

Douglas: Gary Fox was a key case. It ended up being read into the federal record. It is normally a dry recitation of facts, but the Labor Department intentionally included his story. 

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Credit Earl Wilson / Courtesy Photo
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Courtesy Photo

Hamby: When John gave me the basic details about what happened to Gary Fox, that’s when I decided if I can even determine that what happened to Gary is actually what happened, and if this happened on a larger scale, this is a story that I just have to tell. I've spent the many years since trying to understand Gary's life, and piece together exactly what happened to him. In a lot of ways, it is both tragic and inspiring. 

He was an incredibly hard worker by all accounts. He was a roof bolter. He filed a federal black lung benefits case and got his examination by the doctor, legendary Dr. Don Rasmussen in Beckley. They found that he did have severe black lung disease. So, he was initially awarded benefits, but then the law firm Jackson Kelly contested the case and provided quite a bit of evidence to the contrary. 

What plays out over the course of the book is, and I don't think it's any secret here, is that they withheld multiple very critical pieces of evidence that would have shown exactly how serious Gary was. That involved their own doctors who usually do not find black lung. 

Douglas: I remember you saying in the book several times that Gary himself and then his family, his wife, and then even after he died the children said “No, keep fighting this fight. This is important. This is what Gary would have wanted.”

Hamby: It was really about what's fair and what's right. When you describe the way the system was functioning before, it's so obvious that it wasn't fair and it wasn't right. It was hurting people and that was really just the most amazing thing about what John and Gary and this small group of advocates and other miners did. 

There were so many setbacks, so many losses, it would have been so easy to quit at so many points. And they were going through incredible physical suffering at the same time as well as economic hardship because they weren't awarded benefits. And they pressed on and were able to achieve a really remarkable change.

Author Chris Hamby won a Pulitzer Prize in 2014 for his reporting about the complicated process of getting black lung benefits.

This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.

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