Pulitzer Prize Honors Series

Exposing Black Lung Denials


April 28, 2014

With the incidence rate of black lung disease growing among coal miners, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions’ radiologists rendered medical opinions that covered up the problem.

As president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka hears and reads a lot of horror stories about workers being abused by employers.

Last year, one story struck home in a uniquely personal way for Trumka, a former coal miner whose father, grandfathers and uncles died from black lung disease, suffocating from the effects of years of breathing coal dust.

 A series entitled “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine” documented how corporate lawyers, supported by a small team of Johns Hopkins radiologists, were actively covering up evidence to deny thousands of coal miners compensation for black lung.

The series, by Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity, was recently awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Produced in partnership with the ABC News Investigative Unit, the package included an in-depth “Nightline” segment.

AFL-CIO Now commended Hamby’s work even before the award was presented, saying the series was particularly timely considering an alarming increase in the number of coal miners--including younger and younger miners--who are being diagnosed with black lung disease.

Last November, in an op-ed published in the Huffington Post, Trumka advised readers that they, too, will be angry when they read that a small unit of radiologists at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions almost always denied X-ray evidence of black lung. Over the past 13 years, one doctor examined 1,573 miners’ black lung X-rays and not once did he diagnose the severe form of black lung that automatically qualifies for compensation.

As a result of the investigation, Johns Hopkins has since suspended its black lung program.

“This was more than just a project to me,” Hamby said. “I spent a lot of time in West Virginia with people who were slowly suffocating to death and they had been essentially screwed by a system that was completely stacked against them and they had no recourse. These are some of the most voiceless people in the country.”

To prevent more deaths and disabling conditions like those poignantly documented in the Pulitzer-winning series, Trumka proposes that the Obama administration finalize a rule proposed in 2010 by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to cut breathable coal mine dust in half and establish new air sampling requirements.

Once fair and honest doctors produce medical evidence of black lung disease, says Trumka, it might open the eyes of the coal company executives, lawyers and doctors just a bit about how debilitating this disease is.

“First tape your mouth shut, and then pinch one of your nostrils closed. Run up and down a flight of stairs 10 times. See how hard it is to breathe. Feel your heart pounding so hard that it scares you. That’s what black lung victims deal with every day, No one, not even coal company lawyers, should be condemned to such a life.”

“The IBEW was founded in the fight against rampant electrocutions in our industry,” says International President Edwin D. Hill. “Like our brothers and sisters in the mining industry, we have always appreciated the work of journalists who put their talents into exposing and rectifying dangers on the job and winning adequate compensation from employers. We congratulate Chris Hamby on his well-deserved Pulitzer.”



Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Big Ed’s Photos