By Sharon Broughton (September 12, 2020)
Soul Full of Coal Dust – A Fight for breath and justice in Appalachia, Chris Hamby, Little, Brown and Company, August 18, 2020, 448 pp., $32.32
Soul Full of Coal Dust is a riveting account that is part memoir, part medical and legal thriller, part underdog takes on the Goliath of systemic injustice. With devastating clarity, it exposes the corruption, fraud, and medical, legal, and corporate malpractice that has denied miners and their families the life support and medical care that is their due.
Chris Hamby, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times, describes working on this book as the most meaningful experience of his career.
Based on more than eight years of reporting, interviews, research and trips to West Virginia detailed in extensive endnotes, Soul Full of Coal Dust brings to life the people, places and unvarnished facts that underpin the fight for justice, and the ultimate triumph of taking on the powerful force of Big Coal and winning.
Hamby unpacks the complex issues as a well-placed storyteller, introducing people we meet in the kitchens and clinics of rural Appalachia.
Two unforgettable protagonists are John Cline, a lawyer and foot soldier in the war on poverty, whose quiet activism was a catalyst for change and Gary Fox, a hard-working black-lung diagnosed coal miner determined to support his family by fighting to prove he qualified for benefits denied him.
Black lung disease is as awful as it sounds - an incurable respiratory illness. It is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust and known medically as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). Decades have passed since CWP has been recognized as a national disgrace in the USA and around the world. Hard-fought legislation was passed to eradicate black lung disease by improving conditions in coal mines, and to provide essential compensation for miners whose health was ravaged by exposures in hazardous environments.
But this page-turner makes it hard to believe that this is 2020, not 1920.
With the evidence, legislation and technology available in today’s world, it was shocking to learn how byzantine policies and a labyrinthine legal system, coupled with collusion involving insurance providers, coal companies, governments and unions, have resulted in many millions of dollars over decades changing hands to line the pockets of everyone except those needing it most.
We travel down mineshafts and learn about the hardest kind of work deep underground. We meet the stalwart miners and their families who made the ultimate, senseless sacrifice in the face of duplicitous forces who flout the law, leaving miners unprotected from deadly dust exposures. We learn the age-old trope is still true and played – it being cheaper for Big Coal to pay small fines and fight miners’ claims than do the right thing.
The longshot legal battle that is the “fight for breath and justice” has a bittersweet ending, as Gary Fox did not live to see the ruling declared.
The long-sought rule to strengthen measures to prevent black lung is now fully in effect. A coal baron is imprisoned. An essential legal requirement to help miners in benefits cases is restored after 30 years. Doctors can face sanctions from suspensions to permanent bans for disregarding guidelines. And a key victory: full disclosure of all medical evidence in both sides of cases is now mandatory.
According to Hamby, this change to the Labor Department’s disclosure rule ought to be called “Gary’s Law” – as it ensures other miners need not go through what Gary did, and what he and his wife Mary’s quiet persistence made possible.
As a result of this legal win, those coming next have a chance at what was denied their predecessors – access to funded treatments, hope that the disease might not reach the worst stage, and more years to live.
Reading this book so close to Labour Day is poignant, a time dedicated to reflecting on the need for better pay and conditions for workers. Just as the pandemic crisis of COVID-19 has made it impossible to ignore how low-paid and precarious work has become for so many people, Soul Full of Coal Dust highlights the battles fought by coal miners for compensation in return for dangerous, health-destroying labour.
Sadly, this story is far from over.
Federal regulations limit how much coal dust should be in the air. Mines are supposed to follow methods to control the amount of dust. The assumption that regulations will be followed and employers will comply with safety rules belies the real-world experiences Hamby has shown us. Despite all that is known, black lung disease has not yet been eradicated. Not all afflicted receive the support they need. Hamby has illuminated dark depths of greed and corruption that can hopefully now hold to account those who need to be.
Take a deep breath and remember that this small but tenacious group of labourers and the dedicated lawyers and doctors at their side who, against all odds, over years of set-backs, prove Margaret Mead’s famous saying
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Sharon Broughton, M.Ed. is the Chief Executive Officer of Prince’s Trust Canada, a national charity supporting young people facing barriers to employment and veterans in transition, as well as an Instructor in U of T’s Non-Profit Leadership for Impact certificate program.
Also reviewed by Sharon Broughton
Unleashed: The true challenge of leadership (September 2, 2020)
An asset to any group’s recovery strategy (May12, 2020)
A widening gap between the rich and poor—the new Canadian ‘normal’ (February 18, 2020)
Building social connectedness in a social media world (October 19, 2019)