Why young miners are getting Black Lung

Retired coal miner Chuck Nelson stands in front of a mountaintop removal site. Massive equipment is used to mine the coal, which destroys land, water and air.


Editor’s Note: Chuck Nelson, a retired 4th generation coal miner with almost 30 years underground, speaks with the People’s Tribune about the resurgence in Black Lung, the disease caused by breathing in coal mine dust. Black Lung is now striking younger workers. Chuck traces the rise in the disease to the buying off of union mines. He says a new generation of miners is working without the health safety net of unionized mines.

WEST VIRGINIA — “The Union plays a vital role in keeping the company in check. No one is guarding the henhouse now. They do what they want. From 1994 on—drastic changes took place; union mines were shut down. Peabody sold their operation to Massey Energy, [the company where 29 miners were killed in 2010]. When Peabody sold them off, Massey threw the union off; mines are all non-union today. Now the company is responsible for inspections. The testing of air quality is not there

“Where I worked, Massey Energy, they took down the ventilation system when we started producing the coal. This was common. In the last 6-7 years, young miners in non-union mines were exposed to a lot more dust; the air isn’t getting to where you’re mining. The ventilation system is key to keeping miners safe. With no air, you see why young people are getting Black Lung. When there were unsafe conditions in union mines, we could pull ourselves out and say ‘no, we want this fixed.’ In non-union mines you wouldn’t dream of it. Before, we had the right to shut an operation down if there wasn’t the right amount of air. In non-union mines you don’t have that right. You do what the company tells you. Miners know they can take your job in a heartbeat.

“Young miners don’t know about Black Lung or about union. They haven’t seen that difference. They thank Massey for giving them a job. Massey brings in boys from college who’ve never been underground as supervisors. They tell you, ‘do it this way.’ They don’t take into account our conditions. But we know because we’ve done it. We don’t need the company. I don’t owe those people nothing. You give your life, you made me move from where I grew up, and I’ve worked hard, but I’ve seen how little they care for you. A lot of young guys don’t know that. And, it’s almost
impossible to get Black Lung benefits. Since I have 5% Black Lung they say I don’t have it bad enough to where I deserve benefits, yet it’s a progressing disease. Some people are on their deathbed after being awarded.

“There’s corruption everywhere, the companies, government, and also in union organization. We have to weed people out. This is why the teachers are holding leaders hip accountable. I’m tickled to death to see the teachers strike. But I don’t trust the government taskforce that’s supposed to solve the health insurance issue. I hope the movement doesn’t die down.

“Everyone here is tied to energy. That’s why we’re always getting the shaft. Coal will still be in decline, a little opened up after the elections, but it’s so far gone. We told our legislators to diversify the economy, but they’re not willing. We’ve got the most useless politicians. Now Blankenship, former CEO of Massey, got out of prison and is running for office.

“There has to be major change.”



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