June Leffler Published

Q&A: National Black Lung President Gary Hairston

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Gary Hairston had worked in mines in West Virginia for almost 30 years. He left his job once it became apparent he had developed a serious case of black lung. Since leaving the mines, Hairston has been active in the Fayette County black lung group. Last year, he was named the National Black Lung Association President.

Health reporter June Leffler spoke to Hairston about his disease and current organizing efforts.

Leffler: When did you begin to develop black lung?

Hairston: I think when I was working at Maben Energy they first saw a spot in my lungs, but I paid no attention. Then when I went to the non-union mine, the spot was still there. And after that, it started getting worse. When I was working it started to rain, and I ran up the stairs to get out of the rain. That’s when I realized that something was the matter with me, because once I got to the bath house I couldn’t breathe. I was sitting there thinking “I’m gonna sit here and die,” and they got oxygen upstairs, and I can’t even get upstairs to where they had that because I can’t get my breath back.

Leffler: You were still working the mines at that point, what happened after that experience?

Hairston: I got sick, I thought it was just a cold. And then one day, I started coughing up meat. And I hadn’t had lunch yet and I’m trying to figure out where that’s coming from.

My wife said I was breathing so hard that she thought I would quit breathing at any time.

And then I went to the hospital. I had pneumonia, and from there on every time I got out of the hospital I was back in the next week. And I was doing that for close to a year.

Leffler: How are you dealing with the disease now?

Hairston: Everything I do I have to do without getting in a hurry. When I go up the steps in my house I have to find somewhere to stand or sit down when it gets hard to breathe. Most of the time I don’t use my oxygen tank until night time.

Leffler: You got started organizing after joining the Fayette County black lung group. You’ve been to Washington multiple times. What issues need to be addressed around black lung right now?

Hairston: Well, we want to make sure that they rework the Sicilia standard. And we’ve been fighting to keep the excise tax up on coal production. That money goes right into the federal black lung fund. They pay $1.10 for coal mines (per ton of coal), strip mines pay 55 cents. But see, Congress is doing this on a year to year basis right now, and we’re fighting to change that to every ten years to keep from every year turning around and they try to cut it.

And the widows benefits, to make sure that they don’t lose out when a coal miner dies. We want to make sure that they don’t have to refile. And try to help some of the widows when the coal miner died before they got approved for black lung benefits. Because in many times black lung does play into the death, but if a doctor hasn’t said that, then it’s hard for the widow to get what they deserve.

We really have to get the senators on board, and the only one that’s interested right now is Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). Even Manchin isn’t, I guess he’s got so much going on right now he’s not even worried about it. We’ve got some people that aren’t in coal states willing to do these things, when we got senators in coal states that won’t even help.

Leffler: How do you feel about the new administration?

Hairston: At this point we really don’t know. We’re hoping to get someone in MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) who supports the coal miners, rather than the coal companies. We’ve talked to some of them in the system that didn’t really want to hear what we had to say until they get someone new in the MSHA that will be there permanently.

Leffler: And how have your organizing efforts been impacted during the pandemic?

Hairston: We really can’t do anything. We’ve been trying to do a little bit of Zoom, but it’s a lot different when you talk with people or personally. They really can tell how black lung has affected where you’re coming from.