Black Lung Is Back: Easily Cheated Regulations and Little Oversight Lead to Severe Cases in Young Miners
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All of this has led NIOSH to believe that the resurgence of black lung may actually be worse than its numbers reveal. “We know that there is disease out there that we are not identifying because miners are avoiding participation based upon disease status,” NIOSH epidemiologist Laney said.
Take James Marcum: He spent his last semester of high school taking a class at the University of Kentucky because he already had enough credits to graduate. His father, having filed for black lung benefits a few years earlier, encouraged him to go to school and stay out of the mines.
Nonetheless, James took a summer job at a mine to earn money for college. “I started earning them $800-a-week paydays and said, ‘Why would I want to go to college when I’m earning this kind of money?’ ” he recalled, standing in the shadow of Dewey Dam at the family’s annual picnic at Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonsburg, Ky.
He spent about 90 percent of his 20-year mining career, he estimated, operating a continuous miner. In 1991, the motor of the machine he was running caught fire, and smoke overcame him.
When doctors examined him and took X-rays, they found what appeared to be black lung. James kept the news to himself and didn’t file for benefits, afraid he’d lose his job if he did. “It was good money,” he said. “I had my kids to raise, and I just had to work. … I never said nothing. I just went on and done my job.”
About six years later, James found himself back in the hospital. He’d been caught between two pieces of the continuous miner and injured his back. Alone in that section of the mine when the accident happened, he finished his shift and went to the hospital the next morning.
Doctors again took X-rays, and, this time, his lungs were so bad he had to see a specialist. A biopsy confirmed that he had black lung.
Since then, breathing has become more and more difficult for him, especially during the past year. “I miss hunting bad,” he said. “I used to take my boys hunting. But I just ain’t able no more. … I ain’t got the air to do it.”
The youngest of the three Marcum brothers, he has shown the worst decline in lung function. At the family’s picnic, while Donald socialized and Thomas talked to their father, Ray, over plates of fried chicken, coleslaw and potato salad, James sat quietly.
He glanced at his oldest son, 26, who now works in a mine. Without realizing it, James paraphrased his father: “I tried to get him out. He won’t come out. He loves the job.”
Chris Hamby’s reporting on the environment and workplace safety has been recognized with the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi awards and the Upton Sinclair Memorial Award. He has also been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the Scripps Howard Award for Environmental Reporting and the IRE Award. His work includes computer-assisted reporting, and he previously worked at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting’s database library. He has a master’s degree in journalism with a concentration in investigative reporting from the University of Missouri and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Richmond. In 2010, he completed a yearlong re-examination of a controversial murder case, supported in part by an investigative reporting fellowship. His writing about policy, politics, the criminal justice system and public health has appeared online and in newspapers and magazines.