From September 23 thru 26th, 40 Appalachian leaders from 6 states will meet with members of Congress asking for their support of the RECLAIM Act and to increase and extend the tax that funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.
Larry and Hattie Miller from our member group in Kentucky, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, will be traveling with us and sharing their story of living with black lung disease in a community impacted by active and abandoned coal mine sites.
I am a retired coal miner and very proud of that work. I spent 23 years underground mostly as a continuous-miner operator at the working face. I have been diagnosed with stage 1 black lung. The doctor’s report indicates that although small round opacities (spots on the lungs)are present lung volumes are normal.
Subsequent state and federal black lung test reveal no impaired lung function as well. Translation: ‘you have stage 1 black-lung, but no loss of lung function…….yet. You could go through the rest of your life with no lung impairment, or start to go downhill tomorrow. Additionally, your black-lung could produce secondary diseases.’
Underground coal mining is arguably the most hostile and dangerous working environment in the United States. You are greeted at the working face with total unrelenting darkness, relying on balance and your cap light to walk on fire-clay and coal chunk sometimes the size of a grapefruit. There are noxious gas mixtures like black-damp, stink-damp, carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide; crushing hazards by roof fall or mining equipment; tunnels filling with water, and injury from fires. Then there is the ever-present concern of being in a methane/coal-dust explosion, l have heard that compared to being in a shotgun barrel at the moment of discharge. Survive all of that and a coal miner may suffocate to death years later.
When cutting coal from the seam, often it becomes necessary to remove at least 12 to 16 inches of sandstone or shale rock from the stratum directly above the coal seam because it becomes unstable and is a crushing hazard or sometimes the mining equipment is too large for the coal seam. Cutting that much sandstone and/or shale significantly increases exposure to silica dust from the crushed rock. Newer machines also cut coal faster, generating more dust. When cutting the “blow-through cut” of a right crosscut, crosscuts
connect the entries, and you have to cut sandstone or shale rock I find it is very difficult if not
impossible to stop the dust from blowing back over you.
So, when you work 10 to 12 hours a day and six to seven days a week it increases your dust exposure and decreases the time your body needs to heal from silica and coal dust particles. Smoking does not cause black lung, but it can make the symptoms more severe. Traditionally, black lung has been associated with miners who had been working for at least 20 years, with symptoms often appearing after retirement. But, recently black-lung has been showing up in miners with much shorter mining times.
Consequently, if you work at the face, when you come out of the mine your clothes are coated with coal dust, your face looks to have black makeup applied and your eyes appear to have a mascara liner. Coal dust will permeate your ears, nostrils, eyes and lungs, it is omnipresent. You will cough up black Phlegm sometimes for an hour or longer.
Funding for the black-lung disability trust is scheduled to be cut in half by the end of 2018. That is why my wife Hattie and I are participating in this DC lobbying effort to keep the black lung disability trust funded at current levels. Kentucky can not afford to let the more than 4,000 men and women suffering from black-lung risk loosing their medical support. Also, it would provide the much needed congressional budget offset that would facilitate the passage of the Reclaim act.
Larry & Hattie Miller