For generations, miners have known about the deadly effects of breathing tiny particles of coal dust created by drilling and blasting the earth. Black lung disease, also known as “coal miners’ curse,” has inspired countless ballads and workers’ songs.
In the 1960s, bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens composed this dirge about her brother, who died of the disease:
“Black lung, black lung, oh, your hand’s icy cold,
As you reach for my life and you torture my soul.”
Yet this affliction that slowly attacks a person’s ability to breathe has never aroused the kind of moral indignation and fury that it should. Black lung has been overshadowed in the American consciousness by the mining industry’s staggering toll of catastrophes — including explosions, roof collapses, fires and drownings that have killed more than 100,000 miners in the past century.
But as Chris Hamby makes clear in his lively and arduously researched book, “Soul Full of Coal Dust,” even those who escape the immediate dangers of toiling underground are subject to years, even decades, of pain, labored breathing, and eventual death. “For the poor souls taken by this scourge, there are no news stories commemorating the anniversary of their sacrifice,” Hamby writes. “They simply suffocate in a slow-motion disaster that plays out over years in homes tucked deep in the mountain hollows.”
There are many surprising revelations in Hamby’s book. One is that black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, is undergoing a deadly resurgence in central Appalachia. The main culprit appears to be a decadeslong shift in the way that coal is mined. Mining companies have carved out many of the richest deposits, and now use more powerful machinery to cut through narrower seams with hard rock. This process releases more finely ground silica dust into the air that is many times more damaging to lungs than coal dust alone.
Furthermore, the federal system for providing relief to miners sickened by black lung disease had become grossly one-sided. Mining companies hired high-powered law firms, which in turn paid large consulting fees to doctors from the nation’s most prestigious medical institutions, to combat miners’ claims. These attorneys would also manipulate the evidence by withholding vital pieces of information from judges, miners and even their own medical experts. The miners, by contrast, usually didn’t have the money to pay for lawyers or additional tests.
As a result, a safety net that was established in 1969 to ensure that sickened miners received medical care and minimal financial support was badly fractured by the 1980s, with miners being routinely denied claims despite having clear evidence of disability, Hamby found.
“Soul Full of Coal Dust” may disappoint readers expecting an expansive look into the inner workings of mines. But that terrain has been well trod by others. Hamby, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, is more interested in the complicated legal machinery that puts present-day miners at a disadvantage. He devotes an entire chapter to the arcane process of legal discovery — in essence, both sides requesting evidence from the other — and how the absence of discovery in black lung cases has benefited the big mining companies. Administrative hearings and legal motions may not make for pleasurable reading, but they are where the system’s cruelties are laid painfully bare.
Still, with relentless curiosity and empathy, Hamby has reached deep into Appalachia’s coal hills and discovered the bright places where change occurs. Here he has found dramas of heroism, self-sacrifice and determination. There is an idealistic carpenter who pursues a law degree in his 50s to represent miners afflicted with black lung disease, and a crusading doctor whose groundbreaking research helped catalyze a movement that won benefits for thousands of miners.
Hamby spent eight years writing and reporting on the health effects of coal mining in Appalachia, and this monumental effort set in motion federal reforms that put miners on a more equal footing with their employers. With his latest work, he has performed another public service by portraying the often-forgotten people of coal country as active agents in their own history.
Chris Serres is a Star Tribune reporter. Twitter: @chrisserres
Soul Full of Coal Dust
By: Chris Hamby.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 448 pages, $30.