Advanced black lung cases surge in Southwest Virginia, clinics say

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A potentially deadly disease among coal miners is surging in Southwest Virginia and experts say new regulations could play a role in stopping it. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports one in ten coal miners who’ve worked in underground mines over the last 25 years has black lung disease. 

Leaders at local black lung clinics say younger miners with less experience are increasingly being diagnosed with a more severe form of the disease. 

Fifty-three-year-old James Robinson Jr. is one of many miners in Southwest Virginia who risked his life to keep the lights on. 

“I have a baby brother in the mines right now and I don’t want him to get what I’ve got and to live the way I’m living now,” said Robinson. 

He said he was just 47 when he was diagnosed with “Progressive Massive Fibrosis” or PMF, a more advanced form of black lung disease.

He said he started working in the mines at 20 to make a livable wage for his family.

“My husband was a very hard worker. He worked anywhere from 14 to 16 hours a day, 6, 7 days a week,” said John’s wife Vonda Robinson. “It’s emotional watching his health deteriorate but I know he sacrificed his health to give his family the American dream.” 

Robinson said he always knew his career came with risk but he never expected to develop black lung so early in life. 

“You don’t feel like a whole man you feel like a piece of a man because you can’t do the things you used to do for your family,” said Robinson. 

Stone Mountain Health Services Clinics in St. Charles and Vansant report seeing an increasing number of younger miners with cases of PMF like Robinson’s. 

“You’ve got miners working 6 or 7 years and even less than that with masses that are so huge. It’s just mind-blowing,” said LPN Melissa Muse, who performs black lung scans daily. 

Between July 2018 and February 2019, 70 new cases of PMF were diagnosed at the two clinics. 

Brad Johnson, site manager of the Vansant clinic, estimates that’s triple the cases they saw in earlier years. 

“There was a decrease in the number of PMF cases after some dust regulations were instituted in the late 1970s…but we’ve seen a resurgence in the last few years,” said Jody Willis, nurse practitioner and medical provider at the St. Charles clinic.

Willis said that’s because coal seams are getting smaller, forcing miners to cut more rock. She said this leaves them exposed to more dust, including the toxic particle called silica. 

“There’s going to have to be more focus on monitoring and limiting exposure of silica,” said Willis. 

Currently, the federal government doesn’t regulate silica exposure in coal mining. 

Johnson and Willis agree this should change. 

Johnson said coal companies will not take the lead on their own. “They argue that it’s other factors other than the coal dust and there’s always that push back,” he said. 

Johnson has helped local miners file disability claims for more than a decade. He said it’s critical they get screened for black lung early and often. “That paper trail is so crucial when you present these claims in front of the judges.” 

Willis said cost can be a barrier for medical treatment for some miners but their clinic has a sliding scale payment system that caters to the uninsured and underinsured. 

Stone Mountain Health Services is offering free scans Wednesday, April 3rd at both their St. Charles and Vansant locations in honor of Black Lung Awareness Week. 

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