Mr. Future President? Will You Be the One to End Black Lung?
The first federal law to eradicate black lung was passed nearly 40 years ago. But a doctor who treats the disease says he sees black lung now in younger and younger miners.
To: Our Future President Obama/McCain
From: Betty Dotson-Lewis
RE: A request ““ eradicate black lung
My name is Betty Dotson-Lewis. I am from a small, rural, coalmining town in West Virginia. The natural rugged beauty of the mountains and the people and the rich coal deposits running through the mountain veins are something we could talk about all day, but I would like to address a serious problem hidden deep in those hollows.
Coal miners get black lung from breathing coal dust. The dust builds up in a miner’s lungs and gradually reduces his ability to breathe. Miners with black lung breathe short, raspy breaths. Black lung slowly strangles its victims. Black lung kills many more coal miners than explosions or cave-ins.
On Friday, August 22, 2008, The Charleston Gazette gave front page coverage of a ceremony held in the state capitol marking the 30th anniversary of the opening of the first black lung offices in Charleston and Parkersburg, West Virginia. Important leaders in what became known as the black lung movement — people such as Dr. Donald Rasmussen, Dr. Hawley Wells, Dr. I. E. Buff and Congressman Ken Hechler — were finally given public recognition and honored for their roles in helping miners get the first laws enacted in West Virginia and this country to protect the health and safety of miners.
It was a movement. Miners, a few members of the medical profession and Rep. Hechler literally put their lives on the line for years to pass health and safety laws for coal mines. But politicians turned a deaf ear to their pleas until the Consolidation Coal No. 9 Mine disaster, an underground explosion on November 20, 1968, that killed 78 miners near Farmington. The Farmington disaster was followed on February 18, 1969, by the “black lung strike,” when more than 40,000 of West Virginia’s 43,000 miners walked off the job to protest the working conditions in the nation’s coal mines.
The strike ended on March 2. The miners carried an empty coffin through the streets of Charleston symbolizing the deaths of their fellow workers on and off the job and because of black lung. Later that year, Congress passed the nation’s first serious health and safety law for coal mines. The act set levels for the amount of coal dust miners could be exposed to and provided monetary benefits to miners disabled by the disease.
So you see, Mr. Future President, keeping the lights on in America is not without its dangers and struggles. Both continue in West Virginia. The mines are too often unsafe. And miners still get black lung.
A Black Lung protestor from the late '60s.
Dr. Rasmussen, one of the leading experts in the field, told me in an interview he was sure he would be seeking work in a different field or location following the passage of the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act. With federal standards in place, Rasmussen believed he would no longer be needed to conduct black lung tests on coal miners.
More than thirty years later, this has not been the case. In fact, at one of our Fayette County Black Lung Association Meetings, where Dr. Rasmussen appeared as guest speaker, he told the support group he is now seeing evidence of black lung in younger and younger miners. He is booked solid conducting tests on miners who come to see him from Southwest Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.
Mr. Future President, to give you a better understanding of the overall effects of this depressing, debilitating, disease, I would introduce you to someone special to me who suffered from black lung. The miner I am talking about was John Adkins, a friend and neighbor. John’s life story is pretty normal for those living in the coalfields of West Virginia. He began his mining career at the age of 15 ““ just helping out a neighbor, shoveling coal by hand. John came from a tough mountain family. He loved the mountains, hunting, fishing and riding a four-wheeler. John loved mining coal.
John’s work history is short and simple. He was a West Virginia coalminer. He enjoyed the hard work and brotherhood of fellow miners. In 1969, when the Hominy Falls Mine Disaster struck, John was employed by Island Creek Coal Company in the same county. When mine disasters strike in nearby neighborhoods, miners from all over donate their time and expertise. John worked on the opposite end of the county where the disaster occurred. So he put in his regular shift and then traveled to Hominy Falls and worked all night helping to reach the ten stranded miners. John Adkins was not only tough but compassionate.
John worked 40+ years in the coal mines and somewhere along the way he developed black lung. One expert explained black lung to me this way: The lungs become petrified. They are cut to pieces by the coal dust inhaled. The miner coughs, hacks plegm, spits, and can’t breathe. There is no cure for black lung ““ death is the only way out. The only compensation are the benefits established under the 1969 act.
Following the black lung diagnosis, John was unable to work. He then began the long, disappointing process of seeking black lung benefits. At one point he was awarded benefits for nearly one year, only to have them taken away. He and his wife, Grace, had to repay the amount they had received, which was not only devastating mentally but it meant the loss of his pickup truck.
One of my last visits with John was a late afternoon. Grace called to tell me John was feeling down and asked, if I had the time would I stop by. I did. I parked in a wide spot on the side of the road and walked across the wooden bridge to Grace’s and John’s house. Grace was tending her little grocery store. I knocked on the door and John’s faint voice summoned me to come in.
He struggled to get up slowly from the couch. His breathing was labored. He used a walker in one hand and a handmade cane in the other to shift the weight of his thin body. He finally positioned himself so the bulk of his weight rested between the cracks in the cushions on the couch. This made the pain less. Oxygen tanks were on both ends of the couch and a wheelchair was stationed near the door. He showed me a handful of pills prescribed by the doctors. One was a breathing pill.
John was waiting for a decision on his black lung benefits. He had made his last allowable appeal with the help of one of the few lawyers representing black lung claimants, John Cline. John Adkins talked of the bitterness and anger he felt towards the coal companies and the politicians he had trusted to act fairly. John accepted the fact that his health would never return. A few days later, he learned his appeal for monetary benefits had been denied again as well.
John’s only trips out of his house following that visit were to the local hospital and then finally to the family cemetery.
Mr. Future President, please eradicate black lung.