Coal Miner's Dilemma | Crooked Media
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July 24, 2023
What A Day
Coal Miner's Dilemma

In This Episode

  • Black lung disease, a debilitating and incurable condition that affects coal miners, is now on the rise for younger mine workers in Central Appalachia – which labor advocates say is due to unsafe working conditions that have gone unchecked. Journalist Kim Kelly joins us to discuss her investigative reporting on the issue, and what’s being done to protect miners from the dangers they face on the job.
  • And in headlines: Israeli lawmakers approved a key piece of legislation to overhaul the country’s judicial system, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed legislation banning all forms of gender-affirming care, and the CDC is expected to release guidelines for a “morning after” pill to prevent certain sexually transmitted infections.


Show Notes:



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Erin Ryan: It’s Tuesday, July 25th. I’m Erin Ryan. 


Tre’vell Anderson: And I’m Tre’vell Anderson. And this is What A Day with a humble request for our good friend Cher. 


Erin Ryan: We’ll forgive you for not giving us a heads up about your new gelato venture, but only if you let us name the flavors. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. Walking in Mint-phis. If I could churn back time. Call us Cher. We got you. We got so many options. [music break]


Erin Ryan: On today’s show, Israel’s far right government passed legislation limiting the power of its Supreme Court. Plus, public health officials are looking at a common drug to prevent some STIs. 


Tre’vell Anderson: But first, today, we bring you a labor story that you likely know very little about, and that is the experiences of coal miners in central Appalachia, where black lung disease has become more prevalent and has begun to impact younger miners and those who have spent less time underground much more quickly and much more severely. In Kentucky and West Virginia, for example, black lung afflicts more than one in eight coal miners who have been working underground for 20 to 24 years. A decade ago, that number was about one in 30. 


Erin Ryan: So what exactly is black lung? 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, so black lung can include a number of different illnesses and complications, including industrial bronchitis, silicosis, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But when organizations and government agencies issue studies and reports on the crisis, they most often talk about what is called coal workers pneumoconiosis or CWP, which is the only disease formally recognized by the medical establishment as black lung. It also is known as miner’s consumption. Coal miner’s lung or out west, the jackhammer laugh. It can manifest as belabored breathing for a lot of folks. And a black lung diagnosis shortens a patient’s lifespan by 12 to 13 years. And coal miners get black lung, by the way, due to the silica dust that’s filling the air as they dig through layers of silica laden rock to get to the coal. Silica, by the way, is 20 times more toxic than coal dust and ends up being a silent killer of sorts. 


Erin Ryan: Ugh, so I have asthma, which is super minor in the scope of chronic respiratory diseases. And whenever I have a flare up, it so detracts from my quality of life. Imagining something as serious as black lung and how much worse these people’s lives are. I can’t wrap my head around it. I feel so bad for these people. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. And you know, the interesting thing is black lung is actually totally preventable with proper engineering controls, compliance with safety regulations, and up to date exposure standards. No one really has to live or die like this. To learn more about this issue, though, I spoke with friend of the show, journalist Kim Kelly, whose investigative piece, The Young Miners dying of an old man’s Disease came out recently. It follows the story of John Moore, a 42 year old father of three who is dying of black lung. We’ll link to it in our show notes. I started by asking her to tell us about a day in the life of a coal miner and the types of working conditions they were subjected to that lead them to develop black lung. Take a listen. 


Kim Kelly: It’s [laugh] it’s bad. It’s probably still, if not the most dangerous, one of the most dangerous jobs in this country, if not the world. What they’re doing is they’re going through a lot of layers of rock to get to the coal that they want. You know, the Appalachian coal seams, they’ve been worked for centuries now. That’s kind of what we think of when we think about coal mines. But at this point, they’ve been kind of hollowed out. There’s less coal there, so they have to dig deeper through more layers of rock to get it. And that’s where the problem is. Those rocks are full of silica and silica dust, respirable silica that these people are breathing in, that is causing this uptick in black lung. Because silica is 20 times more toxic than coal dust. And we already know coal dust is not great for you. It’s just this increased volume of silica that workers are breathing in at increased levels because the productivity that’s possible in these mines has increased so much with technological advancements. It’s kind of like progress is killing them in a way. John’s story really stuck with me because he’s only 42 years old and he seems like a very strong, healthy man and he has three kids and he’s not ready to die. He’s not ready to be disabled by this disease. But he didn’t have a choice because the conditions were what they were. And his the people that employed him didn’t care enough about his well-being and his safety to make sure that he came out safe and without this disease. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, I’m wondering about what regulations there might be in place to prevent some of this. You mentioned the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. In theory, they’re supposed to be this agency that should be a watchdog of sorts that enforces mine safety measures. But it doesn’t seem like they’re doing a lot to keep folks safe, given that, as you mentioned, coal mine workers are still being diagnosed with black lung and at an alarming rate. Could you talk about why that is? Like, what exactly is this agency doing? 


Kim Kelly: Yeah, well, I would say um the Mine Safety Health Administration, MSHA. I wouldn’t place the bulk of the blame at their feet specifically, I would place it on the coal operators, the people that own these mines that profit off this labor because they know how to prevent black lung. There are mine safety plans and ventilation plans. There’s engineering controls. There are things that you can do to tamp down the dust to make sure that workers are not breathing in this deadly air. All of the things that they need to get through the work day alive, we know how to do that. But it costs a little bit more money, takes a little bit more time, might mean that productivity slows down a little bit to take the time to, you know, make sure things are safe and as they are. Coal operators don’t want to do that because they would rather make those profits and just hire another coal miner later. It really comes down to the way that greed and a lack of regard for workers lives has just been allowed to flourish. And one of the issues in this specific part of the country, in Central Appalachia, so West Virginia and Kentucky especially, is that the unions have kind of been run out. They’re largely nonunion mines. So the workers don’t have anyone to have their backs or to advocate for them or to, you know, bargain strong contracts. They’re kind of on their own. Now, there are strong protections for coal miners enshrined in federal law under the Mine Safety Act, for example, a program called Part 90. If a miner is found to be suffering from black lung, they can request to be moved to a safer part of the mine and keep working out of the dust. But when you’re working in those mines and there’s no union and you’re kind of on your own and you don’t want to lose your job, you don’t want to cause trouble, are you going to take that opportunity or are you going to suck it up and just keep working and see what happens? 


Tre’vell Anderson: You mentioned that there is some legislation already out there that in theory is supposed to protect some folks. And I understand that you just got back from DC, where you spoke with members of Congress about the rise of black lung among coal miners. Could you talk to us a little bit about what those conversations were like, who you talked to and how you shared the stories of people like John Moore to kind of sound the alarm on the reality of coal mine workers like him throughout the country? 


Kim Kelly: Yeah, it was really interesting. I’ve never been to DC for that purpose before. Besides that, it’s usually, you know, like protests and punk shows. [laughter] So it was an experience, but it felt very productive. I was able to meet with staffers from Senator Fetterman, Senator Manchin, which was interesting. This is like the one thing he’s actually very good on. [laughter] Senator Bernie Sanders. Yeah, right. Congressman Ro Khanna. And I also got to sit down with some folks from the Democrats House Committee on Education in the work force, and just got some good contacts from them, from other folks who’ve been working on this. A lot of the people I talked to were cognizant of what was going on and had been following the situation and some weren’t didn’t know as much about it. So we got to learn from each other in a way that I felt was really useful. I did bring and ask them, asking them to push forward on the confirmation of a person named Moshe Marvit, that we’ve been trying to get confirmed to a federal Mine Safety Commission. He’s awesome. But the Republicans have been blocking him for over a year. So I was like, maybe we should do something about that. Coal is complicated. The world is on fire. But these workers don’t deserve to smother to death because they’ve been forgotten and because coal bosses have gotten really, really good at making money off of dead workers. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. My last question for you really quickly. I know you have covered labor more broadly, and this issue here is fundamentally a workplace safety issue. I’m wondering how you think the conversation around the coal miners might impact workers in other industries who are similarly dealing with, you know, these workplace safety issues? 


Kim Kelly: Yeah, because every workplace has different hazards, right? And they’re all valid and they all need to be addressed. And even when it comes to something like black lung, one of the things about it that really stuck with me was I was talking to my old friend Danny about my granddad who died from mesothelioma. That’s something that happens when you like him, work in a steel mill for 40 years and breathe in asbestos. And he told me, oh, we call that white lung. And I was just kind of shaken at how just how much it all intersected. I mean, garment workers in places like L.A. and all over the world, really, they’re breathing in cotton fibers. They call that brown lung, byssinosis. There’s so many different ways to be unsafe at work and so much more effort we need to be putting into protecting every worker at their jobs, because every worker deserves to be safe and respected and to come home. 


Tre’vell Anderson: That was my conversation with journalist Kim Kelly about her piece, The Young Miners Dying of an Old Man’s Disease, which you can find in our show notes along with info about Kim’s book, Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor. That is the latest for now. We’ll be back after some advertisements. [music break]. 




Erin Ryan: Let’s get to some headlines. 


[sung] Headlines. 


[clip of Israeli lawmakers] [indistinct shouting] 


Erin Ryan: You just heard Israeli lawmakers shouting shame as they were escorted out of the Knesset by security shortly after the chamber approved a key piece of legislation to overhaul the country’s judicial system. As we told you on yesterday’s show, the controversial package of proposals would strip Israel’s Supreme Court of certain powers. Critics have denounced it as a power grab by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far right government and stressed that it would also eliminate the only avenue for checks and balances in Israel’s political system. In the lead up to yesterday’s vote, protesters outside the Knesset building, many of whom had camped out for days before the vote, were pelted by foul smelling skunk water from cannons fired by Israeli police. The fight against the reforms has gone on for 29 straight weeks and has pushed Israel into one of its biggest political crises in years. Opponents are already trying to appeal the decision on the first bill. And Israel’s largest trade union has threatened to kick off a nationwide general strike if further bills are approved without some consensus from the opposition. Meanwhile, the White House has called the vote, quote unquote, “unfortunate” and quite a tepid response. Uh. And in a national address on Monday night, Netanyahu called it a necessary step to carry out the will of Israeli voters. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Russia is already an extraordinarily hard place to be queer or trans. And yesterday, Vladimir Putin made it even tougher by signing legislation banning all forms of gender affirming care. Putin’s approval of the law was all but expected after it was passed unanimously by both houses of the Russian parliament earlier this month. The law bans any medical procedure that aims to change a person’s assigned sex at birth and prevents people from changing their assigned gender on any official document or public record. It also bars trans people from adopting or fostering children and will annul any marriages if one partner has gone through gender affirming care. The ban is a part of Russia’s ongoing anti-LGBTQ agenda, which stems from the Kremlin’s crusade to safeguard Russia against so-called Western anti-family ideology. But as with anywhere in the world, banning access to such treatment doesn’t mean that people won’t seek it out. Human rights advocates warn that the ban will further jeopardize the health and wellbeing of trans people in Russia and could lead to a dangerous black market for hormone substitutes. 


Erin Ryan: [sigh] Once again, making important medical care illegal does not help anybody. It just punishes people. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. 


Erin Ryan: And to update you on another story we brought you yesterday, the Justice Department has saddled up and sued the state of Texas. The lawsuit challenges Texas over the floating barriers ordered by Governor Greg Abbott to stop migrants from swimming across the Rio Grande. The DOJ wants the state to take the barriers down and is also seeking an injunction to stop Texas from putting up more. The feds say this whole fiasco violates a section of the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act, which basically makes it illegal to put crap like this in American waterways without federal approval. The Biden administration has already notched a win against another harebrained scheme like this from a border state. Earlier this year, Arizona was forced to take down its attempt at making a makeshift border wall made out of shipping containers. Why is this like Evil Looney Tunes type stuff? 


Tre’vell Anderson: That’s exactly what it’s giving, Evil Looney Tunes. 


Erin Ryan: It’s giving Acme Corporation. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. 


Erin Ryan: And this isn’t the only lawsuit Abbott is facing over the buoys. He’s also been sued by the owners of a Texas canoe and kayaking company who say that the barriers are bad for their business and more importantly, argue that the governor can’t singlehandedly create his own border patrol. So put on your best bolo tie, Greg Abbott, because we’ll be seeing you in court. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Well, he said he wanted to go to the court and now they are. He got what he wanted, I suppose. 


Erin Ryan: Indeed. Yeah. 


Tre’vell Anderson: If you’ve ever had the sneaking suspicion that people with rich parents maybe, just maybe have it easier. Well, sadly, we have even more proof. 


Erin Ryan: What?! [laughter]


Tre’vell Anderson: According to a sweeping new study released yesterday, high school seniors from the richest American families are more than twice as likely to get into the most competitive private universities compared to their middle class counterparts, even if they have similar SAT scores and GPAs. Surprise, surprise. 


Erin Ryan: Not at all surprising. 


Tre’vell Anderson: [laughing] Right? Not at all surprising at all, actually. 


Erin Ryan: Not at all. 


Tre’vell Anderson: The economists behind the study, who ironically are based at Harvard, narrowed down the three main things from which rich kids are most likely to benefit. Legacy admissions, also known as affirmative action for rich white people, athletic recruitment programs, and more time and support for extracurricular activities to boost their applications. The paper doesn’t include any further breakdowns when it comes to race because, let’s face it, we already know the answer. An economist who wasn’t involved in the survey told The New York Times, quote, “What I conclude from this study is the Ivy League doesn’t have low income students because it doesn’t want low income students.” If you want to take a look for yourself, we’ll have a link to it in our show notes. 


Erin Ryan: Hmm. Yeah. I feel like we’re in an era right now where the uselessness of the administrative class is really at the forefront. Like, there is an entire layer of college administrators whose only job it is is to generate more money for the colleges that they work for. It’s not to improve the quality of education for the students. It’s not to build a better community. It’s literally to take in more money. And what better way to take in more money is to just admit students whose parents can pay the full tuition price rather than having to rely on financial aid or scholarships. I mean, this is unsurprising, but still so infuriating. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. 


Erin Ryan: Yeah. As a former poor kid who went to a school with a lot of rich kids, this really grinds my gears. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. 


Erin Ryan: And finally, an old drug is getting some new attention to prevent certain sexually transmitted infections. The CDC is expected to release guidelines later this summer for a treatment charmingly called DoxyPep. Hmm. Sounds like a little candy. [laughter] Like a pixie stick for sexual wellness. It uses a common antibiotic that, according to recent studies, can work as a sort of morning after pill to prevent bacterial STIs like syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. But it remains to be seen what the new guidance will look like. While DoxyPep is already being prescribed to some men who have sex with men who are at a higher risk of contracting STIs, studies are mixed as far as its efficacy with cisgender women. Some experts are also concerned that DoxyPep, as with any antibiotic, could lead to stronger, more drug resistant bacterial strains. But in the meantime, with rates of STIs going up across the board for the past decade, it’s still worth saying use some damn sense people and use some protection. I mean, like a barrier protection. I mean, like a condom. I mean like a dental dam. Use a physical barrier type protection, not a pill and some hopes and dreams because we’re not there yet. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Listen, we are not there yet, okay? Back in my day, they used to simply say, wrap it up. And I would like people to remember that. 


Erin Ryan: Mm hmm. And speaking of wrapping it up. Those are the headlines. 




Tre’vell Anderson: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Make fun of Greg Abbott’s outfit every chance you get and tell your friends to listen. 


Erin Ryan: And if you’re into reading and not just ways to end affirmative action for rich people like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Erin Ryan.


Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 


[spoken together] And we mean it, wrap it up. 


Tre’vell Anderson: Listen, okay? Stop playing games with your lives okay?


Erin Ryan: In some ways, I’m glad I’m old and boring at this point. Glad I’m married. Glad I don’t have to worry about it anymore. [laughter] It’s a relief, in a way. Don’t have to brush my hair, don’t have to worry about it. But everybody else, please. [laughter] [music break] 


Tre’vell Anderson: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our show’s producer is Itxy Quintanilla. Raven Yamamoto and Natalie Bettendorf are our associate producers. Our intern is Ryan Cochran, and our senior producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.