This week the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration released updated regulations designed to drastically reduce the amount of coal dust miners inhale, hoping to cut back on the prevalence of black lung disease.
Initial regulations were put into place in the late 1960s which helped reduce the number of miners suffering from the disease, but Chris Hamby, winner of a 2014 Pulitzer Prize who has been following black lung for the past year, said there has been a resurgence of black lung in the past two decades. That caused him and the Center for Public Integrity to take a deeper look at the issue infecting Appalachia.
“The stereotype of black lung is that it was eradicated years ago, but that’s not the case,” Hamby said.
“Since the late 1990s, there’s actually been a resurgence of the disease and it’s increasingly affecting younger miners.”
Hamby’s initial investigative pieces were through a partnership with NPR’s Investigative Correspondent Howard Berkes. During that project, Hamby said many miners and advocates reached out to him with their stories, many who were having difficulties receiving black lung benefits.
“They felt like the benefit system was completely rigged,” he said. “They had no chance of winning.”
Hamby said the size of the story itself made him hesitant to take it on, but he continued because he wanted to shed light on the practices of the mining companies, their lawyers and doctors who were finding ways to deny benefits.
“I think it’s the job of a reporter to try to figure out where this is happening and force the public to look at stuff that makes them uncomfortable like this,” Hamby said, “and maybe they’ll do something about it.”
Hamby’s year-long series is titled “Breathless and Burdened” and was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.