A Modern Black Death in Kentucky's Mountains

A Modern Black Death in Kentucky's Mountains

Unemployed coal miner Bobby Farley in the front yard of his Harlan County home in Baxter, Kentucky, on Nov. 7, 2013.

SourceLuke Sharett/Getty

Why you should care

Lives are sometimes at stake when a government breaks its promises.

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For a while, the treasures stored in the mountains of eastern Kentucky seemed as if they could prop up this slice of the Appalachia region all by themselves. Now it’s clearer that such hopes were based on fool’s gold: King Coal has collapsed, in part due to the rise of natural gas and other alternative energy sources. Even if President Donald Trump manages to resurrect some of the industry’s glory days, it will likely take months if not years to see widespread impact. But while it’s bad enough that the people within this sector have been hurting of late, what’s worse is an underreported killer that’s still haunting them and their families.

In the past year and a half,

60 distinct cases of black lung have been identified in Pike County

That’s about twice as many as the total reported nationally during the 1990s. The rise is unprecedented in modern history, with one in 20 Appalachian workers now likely to get pneumoconiosis after a career in the mines, according to data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and compiled by a Kentucky-based radiologist. “This data shows that the scope of the disease is unprecedented and horrendous,” says Wes Addington, deputy director at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg, Kentucky. He has seen an increase of five to six times the number of black lung complications from 2011 to 2016.

While the Appalachia region struggles to deal with the resurgence of black lung, Trump — who was backed by four-fifths of Pike County’s population of around 63,000, thanks partly to his promises to protect miners and restore coal — has largely stayed mum on a critical issue relating to their health. Since 1946, when the U.S. government made an agreement to end a strike by the United Mine Workers of America, union miners nationally who put in 20 or more years have been promised lifelong pensions and health coverage through the UMWA health and welfare funds. Both of those are now at risk, as the pension funds will “collapse within five years” unless fresh cash is plugged into the federal program, says Phil Smith, a spokesman for the UMWA.

People are literally smothering to death … as their benefits are being taken away from their families.

Katelyn Campbell, a community organizer from West Virginia.

Worsening matters is that 16,000 retired miners across seven states — including most of the workers in western Kentucky — could be left without any health-care coverage at all if federal lawmakers don’t fund them by April. “People are literally smothering to death … as their benefits are being taken away from their families,” says Katelyn Campbell, a community organizer from West Virginia.

To be sure, federal lawmakers did pass a stop-gap solution in December, a crucial compromise since the system would have collapsed on New Year’s Day. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a group of business leaders in October that “the country must not turn its back on Kentucky coal miners,” and this month he introduced legislation — the Helping Ensure Long-term Protection (HELP) for Coal Miner Health Care Act — adding on the Senate floor that his legislation also called on Congress to work with Trump to “repeal regulations that are harming the coal industry.”

But miners, who turned out in droves for Trump and the Republican Congress, are still on uncertain footing. Sure, it’s still the first 100 days of a new administration, but, as Smith notes, “All we hear is ‘We want to do something to help all miners.’ Well, OK: What?

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