Digging Our Own Graves: The Struggle Over Black Lung Disease in Appalachia
Employment and production in the Appalachian coal industry have plummeted over recent decades. But the lethal black lung disease, once thought to be near-eliminated, affects miners at rates never before recorded.
Digging Our Own Graves: Coal Miners and the Struggle over Black Lung Disease sets this epidemic in the context of the brutal assault, begun in the 1980s and continued since, on the United Mine Workers of America and the collective power of rank-and-file coal miners in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields. This destruction of militancy and working class power reveals the unacknowledged social and political roots of a health crisis that is still barely acknowledged by the state and coal industry.
Barbara Ellen Smith 's essential study, now with an updated introduction and conclusion, charts the struggles of miners and their families from the birth of the Black Lung Movement in 1968 to the present-day importance of demands for environmental justice through proposals like the Green New Deal. Through extensive interviews with participants and her own experiences as an activist, the author provides a vivid portrait of communities struggling for survival against the corporate extraction of labor, mineral wealth, and the very breath of those it sends to dig their own graves.
In Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hamby uncovers the tragic resurgence of black lung disease in Appalachia, its Big Coal cover-up, and the resilient mining communities who refuse to back down.
Decades ago, a grassroots uprising forced Congress to enact long-overdue legislation designed to virtually eradicate black lung disease and provide fair compensation to coal miners stricken with the illness. Today, however, both promises remain unfulfilled. Levels of disease have surged, the old scourge has taken an aggressive new form, and ailing miners and widows have been left behind by a dizzying legal system, denied even modest payments and medical care.
In this urgent work of investigative journalism, Hamby traces the unforgettable story of how these trends converge in the lives of two men: Gary Fox, a black lung-stricken West Virginia coal miner determined to raise his family from poverty, and John Cline, an idealistic carpenter and rural medical clinic worker who becomes a lawyer in his fifties. Opposing them are the lawyers at the coal industry’s go-to law firm; well-credentialed doctors who often weigh in for the defense, including an elite unit Johns Hopkins; and Gary’s former employer, Massey Energy, a regional powerhouse run by a cantankerous CEO often portrayed in the media as a dark lord of the coalfields. On the line in Gary and John’s long shot legal battle are fundamental principles of fairness and justice, with consequences for miners and their loved ones throughout the nation.
Taking readers inside courtrooms, hospitals, homes tucked in Appalachian hollows, and dusty mine tunnels, Hamby exposes how coal companies have not only continually flouted a law meant to protect miners from deadly amounts of dust but also enlisted well-credentialed doctors and lawyers to help systematically deny much-needed benefits to miners. The result is a legal and medical thriller that brilliantly illuminates how a band of laborers — aided by a small group of lawyers, doctors and lay advocates, often working out of their homes or in rural clinics and tiny offices – challenged one of the world's most powerful forces, Big Coal, and won.
Barbara Ellen Smith is professor of women's and gender studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and the author of Digging Our Own Graves: Coal Miners and the Struggle over Black Lung Disease.
Chris Hamby is an investigative reporter at The New York Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2014 and was a finalist for the prize in international reporting in 2017. He has covered a range of subjects, including labor, public health, the environment, criminal justice, politics and international trade. A native of Nashville, Tennessee, he lives and works in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia.