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Struggling For Breath In Coal Country

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Raney Aronson:

I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of the PBS investigative series, FRONTLINE, and you’re listening to The FRONTLINE Dispatch. This time, in collaboration with NPR, the voices of coal miners in Appalachia – coal miners suffering from black lung disease. The miners - more than 30 of them – were interviewed by NPR’s Howard Berkes and his colleagues over the past year. It’s part of our investigation into the resurgence of the worst form of black lung. Howard asked the miners about their many years mining coal, about the disease, and who they blame.

Howard Berkes:

Greg! I’m Howard Berkes from National Public Radio. Great to meet you.

Greg Kelly:

Uh huh.

Howard Berkes:

Do you want to go in and talk?

Greg Kelly:

Yeah.

Greg Kelly:

I’m Greg Kelly. I’m in Leatherwood, Kentucky. Well, I dropped out of high school. I was working in a grocery story. I left the grocery store, went to coal mining. I felt like coal mining was my way of, of living…

Charles Shortridge:

It was something that was in our blood that we loved to do. My name is Charles Shortridge and I live in Meadowview, Virginia. And I've worked 28 years in the coal industry. We love working in coal areas, coal mines. That's all we knew was hard work and workin', that's how we provided for our families.

Roy Mullins:

I think it's a lot to do with the comraderie of the people. You get closer you get closer to them than you do your own family. My name is Roy Mullins. Roy Edward Mullins from Clintwood, Virginia.

Paul Kinder:

I love coal mining. If I was able today, I’d be working in the mines. My name is Paul Kinder and I live in a little town called Honaker, Virginia. My full career was underground and I run a roof bolter some and a continuous miner and I was a foreman. And you know, I just loved it. Couldn't wait to get to work.

John Gibson:

My name is John Gibson. I'm from Appalachia Virginia. You know I mean it's a different world. It's just unexplainable if you ain't never done it.

Paul Kinder:

The smell. I remember when I was a little boy, I'd go, my daddy sometimes would take me to the mines where he worked at… And man I love the smell of that drift mouth and everything. It’s just a different smell. I’d like to go smell one today…

John Gibson:

I mean pictures don't do it no justice. It's just something you have to see. Be in there doing it.

Sheralin Greene:

It’s peace and quiet in the coal mines. It's dark. That's the way the coal mine was. My name is Sheralin Greene. I worked fifteen years underground. It's a place in the coal mines. And only one person in this world been there and its God. And you cutting through the mountains and nobody been there before except God and you.

Rodney Sexton:

Once you get the coal dust in your veins, you're like a big fish; you're hooked. You know…

Rodney Sexton:

My name is Rodney Sexton. That song, Coal Dust In Your Veins, that’s what it is. Coal mines was good to me but God's been even better, that’s the only way I can look at it… But, uh the one thing I didn't want was black lung, but I got it anyway.

Howard Berkes:

So what's, what's it like now with the disease for you?

Bill Cantrell:

Oh, it’s terrible. Bill Cantrell. I’m from Pensaport Kentucky, head of Palm Creek. It's unexplainable. I don't know how to explain it.

Charles Shortridge:

It's a horrible-looking thing. You’ve got nodules outside on your lungs that's caused from coal dust, rock dust. Well it looks just exactly like a, to me it looks like some kinda eyeball looking right out at your lung you know. A big brown eye. In there.

Jackie Yates:

It's just like turns your lungs to concrete. My name is Jackie Yates.

Noah Counts:

My name is Noah K. Counts. I live in Clintwood, Virginia. You just stop breathing and you wake up and there you are, you're awake.

Rodney Sexton:

I've done that several times. Jump out of the bed and think I'm dying, run through the house and go and open my front door and run outside you know. Trying to get enough air to where I can breathe and it ain't no funny feeling, you know.

Jack Horne:

I'm Jack Horne and I’m from Kemfort, Kentucky. The only thing I could liken it to is like has somebody ever hold you underwater till you thought you was going to drown. And when you come up you're gasping for air and that's about what it's like you know when you have a lung attack.

Edward Fuller:

Edward Fuller from Steal, Kentucky. It's affected my whole being. And I hate it so bad I can't understand it sometimes.

Howard Berkes:

Looking back on your mining career, can you think about what it was that happened that might have caused your black lung? Yeah. The coal dust. The dust.

Jackie Yates:

Whether you're a buggy man, scoop man, roof-bolter man, boss, electrician, it don't matter. You're going to get exposure to dust.

James Muncy:

I was in the dust all of the time.

James Muncy:

James L. Muncy. M-U-N-C-Y. I come out of there as white as a sheet of a ghost or I come out of there and the only thing you see of me was my eyes.

John Gibson:

Sometimes you can't see. I mean it's so dusty you can't see. It's like being in a room full of smoke.

Harold Dotson:

It’d be just like you walking into a fog bank. Harold Dotson, I live in Kentucky.

Jackie Yates:

You just watch it fall off like ash. It's thick.

Roy Mullins:

You can smell it. You can taste it.

Charles Shortridge:

And when you come outside you get a drink of water or coke or whatever you know what you hark it up and spit it up, your spitting up goops of coal dust. And that is embedded into your system.

John Gibson:

I used to spit it up constantly. I'd be home on the weekends. Blowing and blowing pure coal dust.

James Hayes:

That’s just the way it is really, I think.

James Hayes:

My name's James Hayes and I'm from Pike County, Pigeon Fork Kentucky. You know I mean it's a dusty job. It's just dusty in the coal mines regardless. And if you stay long enough you are likely going to get Black Lung.

Howard Berkes:

Do you blame any part of the system for your disease?

Jimmy Wampler:

I blame the whole mining industry; you know? The companies and all. I'm Jimmy Wampler. I worked for little mines, I worked big mines.

Jackie Yates:

You got people out there that runs mines that all they want is coal. They don't care about violations; they don't care about nothin' else. They just want coal.

James Muncy:

Coal. Get the coal. Get the coal.

Harold Dotson:

They don't care if you live or die. That's the truth of it.

John Gibson:

Name of the game was run coal.

Danny Thornsberry:

Everybody's after the dollar. My name's Danny Thornsberry. And I was a bolter man, scoop man, drill man, done it all and then I ended up being a foreman. There was just a lot a laws that was, that you just you couldn't really do and mine coal profitably.

Roy Sparks:

Roy Sparks and I'm from Rockhouse Kentucky. The company's got so, they're so slick. I mean you know.

Jimmy Wampler:

Fudgin' everything…

Noah Counts:

It's a hide and seek for real. They try, try to act like they're complying with the laws but even the inspectors know they're not.

Edward Fuller:

And you had to do what they said. If you didn't, it was your hide.

Harold Dotson:

You kept your mouth shut. If you didn’t they’d fire you. So I just kept my mouth shut and went on. But I paid / for it in the long run. I sure have. And I’m sure every other miner has too…

Bruce Knopsnider:

I don't fault anybody. I think it's come a long ways. And I don't know where they could go from here to make it better. I really don't. Bruce Knopsnider from White, P.A. The companies that I worked for, none of them were blatantly putting you into an environment that they knowed was harmful.

Roy Mullins:

I think it's just the industry you're working in. I don't think that you can come work in the coal industry and expect much different.

Zachariah Riffe:

Well I don't know about that. To me, the miners should be protected at all cost. My name is Zachariah from pea patch area of Buchanan county. Well you gave them a 110 percent of your life. It's not fair.

Greg Kelly:

Just almost every guy that I know in our church was a coal miner. Or a strip miner. Worked at a strip mine.

Greg Kelly:

A lot of the people I go to church with is coal miners, may have black lung. My pastor, he had black lung. Bill has black lung. Mike has black lung...

Roy Sparks:

…my father-in-law…

Rodney Sexton:

…older brother's got black lung…

Roy Sparks:

…my brother, my uncles…

Bill Cantrell:

…my dad's got black lung and uh…

Roy Sparks:

Just the whole, you know everybody around me, the whole neighborhood.

Rodney Sexton:

Since 2011, I have lost seven friends.

Sheralin Greene:

Yeah. We dying off like crazy right now.

Jackie Yates:

Nobody wants to die, but it's part of life. But to go the way I saw my brother go. It don't feel good to know how you're going to go.

Rodney Sexton:

I don't think I'll be around that long. Just to be honest with you… It's like cancer, a silent killer. That's what it is: a silent killer…

Edward Brown:

You're just like on your deathbed you know. You just stop breathing at night and there you are. Dead, you know. Edward Wayne Brown. I live in Buchanon County, VA. It's just nobody looks forward to dying, you know but it's coming and it worries me….so….

James Muncy:

It's rough. You can't you can't enjoy nothing.

Greg Kelly:

It’s just like a light switch. You turn it on. You turn it off. All your plans that you had y’know…

Rodney Sexton:

I can't go climb mountains. I can't go fishing...

Bruce Knopsnider:

I used to love to cut, split firewood. I can't do that…

James Muncy:

…couldn't play ball with my grandsons. It’s sickening what a man’s got to go through with.

Harold Dotson:

I feel like a failure. I feel like, I actually feel like I'm about an inch high, buddy…

Rodney Sexton:

You feel like you're useless. That's it, useless. That's exactly what you feel like, you're useless. That ain't no way to feel. It ain’t.

Noah Counts:

You just can’t do it no more. And like I say, it’s pretty hard.

Charles Shortridge:

I go out and I just sit down have a good cry. You know, that's all you do. 'Cause it's Black Lung. It's a death sentence.

Noah Counts:

If I had it all to do over, I would do everything over, even knowing the outcome…

Roy Mullins:

To tell you the honest truth, I would love to be doing it today.

Jimmy Wampler:

…but I wouldn't advise you or nobody else to go back in the mines or go on the strip.

Jackie Yates:

I tried to get my son, tried to keep him out of the mines.

Danny Thornsberry:

I said, 'Now look here. You're gonna go to school. Or you gonna get you a job.' And he said, 'I want to stay here, and he said I want to go and work in the mines.'

Jackie Yates:

'No, Dad, I want to work in the mines. I want to be like you.' And guess where he's at? Workin' in the mines. But he made his decision, just like I made mine. I just hope I don't have to put him in the ground.

Noah Counts:

You know it actually helps the miner himself to even get to voice things out that really bottled up inside of him.

Howard Berkes:

Alright, well I really appreciate you speaking with me.

Noah Counts:

Well, I appreciate you having me, cause it was a pleasure sharing it with you.

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