Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia

Little, Brown. Aug. 2020. 448p. ISBN 9780316299473. $30. SOC SCI
Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter Hamby has compiled years of research into his story of coal miners in Appalachia who have endured black lung disease, and of their struggles to secure benefits from coal companies whose purposely hijacked safety procedures had led to their disability. (His prize-winning series of articles was originally published in 2013 as Breathless and Burdened by the Center for Public Integrity.) A law enacted in 1969 was supposed to control the coal and silica dust that, when inhaled, leads to black lung. Coal companies, however, found many ways to subvert the law, from rigging the dust-collection systems to ensure clean samples, to working with high-powered lawyers to make sure miners were denied benefits once they became disabled. Hamby uses ailing miners, their advocates, and the high-powered law firms and coal companies they battled to illustrate his David and Goliath story. The villains of the tale are Massey Energy and its CEO Don Blankenship; the prestigious West Virginia law firm of Jackson Kelly; and physician Paul Wheeler of Johns Hopkins, who interpreted miners’ medical scans. The hero is the miners’ legal advocate, John Cline.
VERDICT An engrossing read for those interested in social justice.
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