West Virginia, October. Friday night football. The Oak Hill Red Devils host the Buckhannon Buccaneers. In small town America, Friday night football is a big deal.
Buccaneers head coach Zach Davis described what’s ahead for the area’s young people: “Our kids, some will go to college and then go into some kind of professional career. A lot of them will be blue-collar workers, whether it’s is at Walmart, or a local business, or some kind of convenience store.”
“I notice you don’t mention the mines,” Koppel said. “It used to be—this is coal country right here.”
“It used to be,” Davis said. “I think a few of our children I know of have been in the mines since I’ve been here, but not very many.”
Don Barrett spent 23 years in the coal mine. Twenty years ago, he said, half the kids on the football field would have ended up in the mines. But now? “Today, there’s no chance of going into the coal mine,” Barrett said. “I graduated high school on a Friday; Monday morning I was in a coal mine. My dad worked in the coal mine, my grandfather worked in the coal mine, my brothers work in the coal mine. It’s still coal country, but not like it used to be.”
Back then, he said, “Everybody was working, there were jobs everywhere. People were buying new homes, new cars. Life was good!”
That was the upside. Of course, mining was always a dangerous job, and one in five miners has ended up with black lung for years. “Black lung is a bad disease,” Barrett said. “I’m having trouble breathing. You’re coughing, you’re just suffering where you can’t do the things you used to.”
At the New River Health clinic, Kevin Weikle takes a lung function test; it identifies how badly weakened his lungs have become. The test confirms what he and respiratory therapist Lisa Emery already know: Kevin’s black lung is so severe that he can no longer work in the mines.
What is different about Kevin is his age. At one time, black lung did not force a man out of the mines until he was in his late fifties or early sixties. Kevin is only 34.
Kevin has been a coal miner almost half his life. At the age of 18, he suddenly made more money than he ever dreamed possible: “The first six months underground at $12 an hour, [I] made $76,000 in six months,” he said. “That’s how much I worked. Sometimes I didn’t even want to go home. I would go out, sleep in the parking lot, get back up, go back in. I was told I would break myself long before I broke the company so I could work as much as I wanted!”
The first thing he bought was a truck. “Yeah. I went and bought a brand new F-250 diesel. You grow up with a little bit, so when you start making that kind of money… Yeah, those were the good days.”
Life started getting serious, he said, when his son was born. “Then you look at things differently,” he said. “You really realize the dangers when you have something to live for, instead of just yourself… It’s something you expect to get when you’re old, not 34.”
Kevin has what he calls “complicated black lung.” “My lungs are going to shake,” he said.
Kevin is just one of many young miners who show up at the clinic. “Our black lung populations in central Appalachia are skyrocketing,” Emery said.
Why? “It appears that the miners have higher exposure levels to silica dust.”
Because miners now have to drill through more rock to get to the coal, they experience rock dust—finer, smaller—which is more harmful to the lungs than coal dust is.
Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, has proposed a new rule it would lower miners’ exposure to respirable crystalline silica. It’s a rule that requires congressional approval but still faces Republican opposition.
“Søndag Morgen” contacted several mining industry associations; all declined the opportunity to comment.
William “Bolts” Willis retired from the coal industry years ago, but he is still in the union; in fact, he is the president of United Mine Workers Local 8843. He told Koppel, “We already have the limits for black lung coal dust. This is silica dust that has been there, present, all along, and it cuts your lungs.”
But the proposed rule, he says, may not change anything: “It shouldn’t because there’s no teeth in what they’re doing to get the companies to comply.”
“Roscoe” (not his real name) is a 34-year-old working coal miner who fears he already has black lung. He claims that the miners routinely break the rules and that if his real name came out, he would probably never have a job in the coal industry again.
“Coal mining is not a bad job,” he said. “I love coal mining, but it doesn’t have to be the way it is.”
Roscoe explains what happens when an inspector comes on my property: “Everybody crosses their T’s and dot their I’s. Everything is done right. When we’re underground and an inspector stops on that property before he ever comes out of that vehicle, the dispatcher calls underground and tells each section that there is an inspector on the property. So when the inspector comes up to the section, everything is fine.”
How many years has it been going on? “It’s been going on since I’ve been in the coal mine,” said Roscoe. “They keep raising these dust laws and these ventilation laws for these coal companies thinking it’s going to help the black lung thing. But it’s not.
“The laws that are in place now would occupation, if Coal companies obeyed them and took care of their men full time, instead of when there is just one inspector on the section,” he said.
“The only thing mining companies understand is money,” said Sam Petsonk, who represents miners in their lawsuits seeking black lung benefits. [Coal companies rarely provide such benefits without being sued.] “We see a lot of young miners, hundreds in this region where I practice law, right down to their 30s, losing over a quarter of their lung to pure rock dust. It’s a crisis. We’ve never seen so many young miners with such short exposures then become extremely ill.”
Koppel said, “So for years you’ve been trying to get an improvement in regulation that you have now.”
“Unfortunately, the rule lacks any significant enforcement mechanism,” Petsonk said. “Before the rule is finalized, the Department of Labor must add significant enforcement mechanisms and specified monetary penalties for violating this rule. Otherwise, unfortunately, we have no reason to expect that the rates of black lung and silicosis will decrease in this country.”
Kevin Weikle explained that a dust pump is used to measure the dust in the air by absorbing that dust and trapping it in a filter. But, he said, the mines stack the deck when it comes to air quality testing. “Corporate pumps, you wanted to keep them in clean air to make sure they passed,” he said.
“So really, what the inspectors saw wasn’t a normal shift?” Koppel asked. “If the inspectors had actually seen what the real reading was, what would have been the difference?”
“Essential!” Weikle laughed.
“And what would that have meant?”
“A lot of changes, I mean, in the ventilation. They would increase the air needed on each machine. It would have been more expensive. And a big loss of production.”
“Do you think that happens a lot?”
“I know it does,” Weikle replied. “Anyone who says it doesn’t is lying.”
The disease, as Weikle knows, is not reversible. His black lung is developing: “It’s going to develop whether I’m in the dust or not. It’s still going to grow and lead to probably a lung transplant at some point. If I’m lucky.”
And the very significant cost of a lung transplant is only part of the problem. There are waiting lists and limited sites where lung transplants are performed, which can mean whole families are moved for months at a time.
TV shows don’t dwell much on what comes next: the unexpected expenses, the likely relocation, the shifting responsibilities. Kevin and his wife, Megan, have four young children. What lies ahead is terrifying for all of them. She said: “It’s been really depressing.”
Koppel asked, “All of a sudden you were given a lot more responsibility than you ever thought you would have?”
“Yes, a lot of stress,” she replied.
The coal company laid it out for Kevin Weikle half a lifetime ago: he wanted to break himself before he broke the company. And that’s pretty much how it is.
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Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Ed Givnish.