When coal miners can’t breathe, getting compensation is an uphill legal battle

For coal miners, black lung disease is a hazard of a career spent underground. Under federal law, miners are eligible for compensation, but qualifying for that comp means going toe-to-toe with law firms hired by coal companies — and the miners often lose. New York Times journalist Chris Hamby describes this struggle in his book, “Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia.” The following is an excerpt.

John Cline looked across his kitchen table at a gaunt man with a countenance etched by a life of hard labor. The two had spoken by phone, but now that they were face to face for the first time, the man’s rapidly declining health became apparent. Each breath, it seemed, required more effort than the last. John had heard such strained exertions many times before, and he knew the suffering these sounds signified.

As each man appraised the other, the faint gray light of a frigid day in the southern West Virginia coalfields fell on the smooth maple top, fashioned by John’s middle son, that adorned the table John’s grandfather had made out of fir. Wind gusted through the patch of land where John and his wife kept a vegetable garden in warmer months. The trees bounding his property to the south had shed their foliage, revealing the precipice preceding the sharp plunge to the Piney Creek Gorge a thousand feet below. In the distance, benches of bare earth lined a stretch of the hillside — the scars of long-finished strip-mining. A railway ran through the gorge, and sometimes when John went for walks in the trails he kept clear behind his house, he still heard the coal trains rumbling through.

This land of scarred beauty had forged both John and the man now seated in his kitchen, a longtime coal miner named Gary Fox. Though they had started life in different worlds, both had come of age amid the political tumult of the late 1960s and the historic coal miners’ rebellion that had swept southern West Virginia at the time. Both had made lives for themselves and their families here in the heart of Appalachia. And both had spent decades working, straining against setbacks, building something bigger than themselves.

John was a rarity here in the coalfields: a lawyer who was willing to help coal miners navigate an abstruse legal system in pursuit of modest monthly payments and medical coverage as recompense for the disease that robbed their breath, the old scourge with the disturbingly accurate name “black lung.” Most lawyers wouldn’t touch these cases. They were complex, time-consuming, and fiercely contested; coal companies and their lawyers made sure of that. Success rates were low, and even after a win, a miner’s lawyer had to prevail in yet another round of legal combat against the company to collect fees that barely kept the lights on.

Yet this was the only type of case John took, the only type he’d ever wanted to take. It was why, a few years earlier, he had gone to law school at age fifty-three and emerged with a load of student debt he would still be paying off long after others his age had retired.

Law was his fourth vocation. The first three — community organizer, carpenter, and rural medical-clinic staffer — might suggest the incongruous roving of a restless soul, but John saw each of them, as well as his current one, as variations of the same job, which he described as “trying to be of use.”

Here in the house he’d built with his own hands in a small community on the outskirts of Beckley, the nearest thing to a big city southern West Virginia coal country had, he ran a solo practice. He had no assistants, no secretaries, no paralegals; each case was John versus the coal company. His kitchen was the de facto meeting room, and directly overhead on the second floor was his office, a small space covered in manila folders bearing the names of sick miners or their widows, each file stuffed with legal and medical arcana designed to befuddle and discourage those who couldn’t find a lawyer like John. Spare shelf space held family photos, and on the wall hung a portrait of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the labor activist and “miners’ angel” who had adopted West Virginia as her second home.

A famous quote of hers was inscribed beside her bespectacled face: Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.

John’s comportment more closely resembled that of his clients than that of his fellow members of the bar. He favored corduroys or jeans and plaid button-downs. His mop of brown-gray hair and soft voice conveyed a certain boyishness. He had the sturdy frame and callused palms of a laborer.

Gary had found him only through a stroke of luck: a recommendation from a legendary doctor who had been conducting…

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