Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia

October 30, 2020
Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia

In a devastating and urgent work of investigativejournalism, Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hamby uncovers the tragicresurgence of black lung disease in Appalachia, its Big Coalcover-up, and the resilient mining communities who refuse to backdown.Decades ago, a grassroots uprising forced Congress to enactlong-overdue legislation designed to virtually eradicate black lungdisease and provide fair compensation to coal miners stricken withthe illness. Today, however, both promises remain unfulfilled.Levels of disease have surged, the old scourge has taken anaggressive new form, and ailing miners and widows have been leftbehind by a dizzying legal system, denied even modest payments andmedical care.In this devastating and urgent work of investigative journalism,Pulitzer Prize winner Chris Hamby traces the unforgettable story ofhow these trends converge in the lives of two men: Gary Fox, ablack lung-stricken West Virginia coal miner determined to raisehis family from poverty, and John Cline, an idealistic carpenterand rural medical clinic worker who becomes a lawyer in hisfifties. Opposing them are the lawyers at the coal industry's go-tolaw firm; well-credentialed doctors who often weigh in for thedefense, including a group of radiologists at Johns Hopkins; andGary's former employer, Massey Energy, the region's largest coalcompany, run by a cantankerous CEO often portrayed in the media asa dark lord of the coalfields. On the line in Gary and John'slongshot legal battle are fundamental principles of fairness andjustice, with consequences for miners and their loved onesthroughout the nation.Taking readers inside courtrooms, hospitals, homes tucked inAppalachian hollows, and dusty mine tunnels, Hamby exposes how coalcompanies have not only continually flouted a law meant to protectminers from deadly amounts of dust but also enlistedwell-credentialed doctors and lawyers to help systematically denymuch-needed benefits to miners. The result is a legal and medicalthriller that brilliantly illuminates how a band of laborers -aided by a small group of lawyers, doctors and lay advocates, oftenworking out of their homes or in rural clinics and tiny offices -challenged one of the world's most powerful forces, Big Coal, andwon.A deeply troubling yet ultimately triumphant work, Soul Fullof Coal Dust is a necessary and timely book about injusticeand resistance.