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Coal Miners Grapple With Black Lung And Their Futures After Decades On The Job


NPR and the PBS show "Frontline" have been investigating a resurgence of advanced black lung among coal miners across Appalachia. We found that, despite mounting evidence and a stream of dire warnings, federal regulators and mining companies failed to protect workers.


Now we're going to hear about this devastating disease from the miners themselves. It has drastically changed their lives, their communities and their families. They told their stories to NPR's Howard Berkes and Ohio Valley ReSource reporter Benny Becker. We start in Leatherwood, Ky., which is where Howard met miner Greg Kelly.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: Greg, hey. I'm Howard Berkes from National Public Radio. Great to meet you.


BERKES: Do you want to go in and talk?

KELLY: I'm Greg Kelly. I'm in Leatherwood, Ky. Well, I dropped out of high school. I worked in a grocery store. And I left the grocery store and went to coal mining. I felt like coal mining was my way of living.

CHARLES SHORTRIDGE: It was something that was in our blood that we loved to do. My name is Charles Shortridge, and I live in Meadowview, Va. And I've worked 28 years in the coal industry. We loved working in a coal mine since that's all we knew, was hard work. And that's how we provided for our families.

PAUL KINDER: I love coal mining. If I was able today, I'd be working in the mines. My name is Paul Kinder, and I live in a little town called Honaker, Va. My full career was underground. And I run a roof bolter some and a continuous miner, and I was a foreman. And, you know, I just loved it.

I remember when I was a little boy, I'd go - my daddy sometimes would take me to the mines where he worked at. And, man, I loved the smell of that. It's just a different smell. I'd like to go smell one today. It was a good job and a good way to get to work.

JOHN GIBSON: My name's John Gibson. I'm from Appalachia, Va., and I'm 56.

HAROLD DOTSON: Harold Dotson, live in Phelps, Ky.

JACKIE YATES: My name is Jackie Yates.

NOAH K COUNTS: My name is Noah K. Counts. I live in Clintwood, Va.

RODNEY SEXTON: My name is Rodney Sexton. Coal mines was good to me, but God's been even better. That's the way I look at it, you know? The one thing I didn't want was black lung, but I got it anyway (laughter).

BERKES: What's it like now with the disease for you?

BILL CANTRELL: Oh, it's terrible. Bill Cantrell, I'm from Pinsonfork, Ky. I mean, it's unexplainable. It's just - I don't know how to explain it (laughter).

SHORTRIDGE: It's a horrible-looking thing. You got nodules that's on your lungs that's caused from coal dust, rock dust.

YATES: You know, it's just, like, turned your lungs to concrete.

COUNTS: You just stop breathing. And you just wake up, and there you are. You're awake.

JACK HORNE: I'm Jack Horne, and I'm from Kimper, Ky. The only thing I could liken it to is, like, if somebody ever holds you underwater till you thought you were going to drown. And when you come up, you're gasping for air. That's about what it's like, you know, when you have a lung attack.

EDWARD FULLER: And I hate it so bad I can't understand it at times. But it's affected my whole being.

BERKES: Tell me your name and where you're from.

FULLER: Edward Fuller from Steel (ph), Ky,

BERKES: Looking back on your mining career, can you think about what it was that happened that might have caused your black lung?

FULLER: Yeah. The coal dust, the dust.

JAMES L MUNCY: Yeah, I was in the dust all the time. James L. Muncy, M-U-N-C-Y. I'd come out of there as white as a sheet, as a ghost. Well, I'd come out of there, and the only thing you'd see of me was my eyes.

YATES: You'd just watch it fall off like ash. It's thick.

ROY MULLINS: My name's Roy Mullins, Roy Edward Mullins, from Clintwood, Va. You can smell it. You can taste it.

SHORTRIDGE: And when you come outside - you get a drink of water, or a Coke or whatever - you know, you hark (ph) it up and spit it up, you're spitting up goops of coal dust. And that is embedded into your system.

JAMES HAYES: That's just the way it is, really, I think. My name's James Hayes, and I'm from Pike County in Pinsonfork, Ky. You know, I mean, it's a dusty job. It's just dusty in the coal mines regardless. And if you stay long enough, you're more likely going to get black lung.

JIMMY WAMPLER: I blame the whole mining industry, you know? The companies, them all. I'm Jimmy Wampler, and I worked for little mines. I worked big mines.

YATES: You got people out there that runs mines that all they want is coal. They don't care about violations. They don't care about nothing else. They just want coal.

MUNCY: Coal - get the coal. Get the coal.

DOTSON: They don't care if you live or die, is the truth of it.

GIBSON: The name of the game was run coal (laughter).

DANNY THORNSBERRY: My name's Danny Thornsberry. And I was a bolter man, scoop man, drill man - done it all. And then I ended up being a foreman. There was just a lot of laws that was - couldn't really do and mine coal profitably.

ROY SPARKS: Roy Sparks. I'm from Rockhouse, Ky. Yeah, the companies has got so - they're so slick. I mean - you know.

WAMPLER: Fudging everything.

COUNTS: It's a hide-and-seek for real. They try to act like they're complying about the laws. Even the inspectors know they're not.

FULLER: And you had to do what they said. If you didn't, your hide.

DOTSON: You kept your mouth shut. If you didn't, they'd fire you. So I just kept my mouth shut and went on. But I paid for it in the long run. Sure have. And I'm sure every other miner has too.

KELLY: Just almost every guy that I know in our church was a coal miner. My pastor, he had black lung. Bill has black lung. Mike had black lung.

SPARKS: My father-in-law...

SEXTON: I got a older brother who's got black lung.

SPARKS: ...My brothers, my uncles...

CANTRELL: My dad's got black lung.

SPARKS: ...Just the whole - you know? Everybody around me, the whole neighborhood.

KELLY: And I think Papa does, and me.

SEXTON: Since 2011, I have lost seven friends.

MULLINS: And knowing that that's coming to you, it's pretty hard to take.

THORNSBERRY: I tried to help my son out of it. I tried to get him to go to school. You know, when he got out of high school, I said, you know, look, you're going to go to school, or you're going to get you a job. And he said, I want to stay here. And he said, I want to go into work in the mines. And so he did.

YATES: I say, you'll be 30 years old with black lung. You don't want this. No, Dad, I want to work in the mines. I want to be like you. And guess where he's at? He's working in the mines.

WAMPLER: The day you pick that dinner bucket up and go in the mines, that's the day you sign your death warrant. That's plain simple.

SHORTRIDGE: I go out, and I just sit down and have a little cry. You know, that's all you do because it's black lung. It's a death sentence. But, you know, what's - you just got to take it one day at a time and hope for the best. Hope and pray that the good Lord has blessed us to have another day.


CORNISH: The voices of 17 coal miners in Appalachia. All of them have advanced black lung. NPR's Cat Schuknecht produced this story as part of an investigation by NPR in the PBS series "Frontline" about the failure of U.S. regulators to stop the worst outbreak of black lung in decades. The full documentary of our investigation, "Coal's Deadly Dust," airs tonight on "Frontline." You can see it on your local PBS station.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.