New Photo Essay on the Human Face of Black Lung

Blog post written by Greenpeace photographer, Les Stone.

McDowell County West Virginia is one of the poorest counties in the United States.

But Welch, the county seat, had at one time the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States. Thousands of immigrants came from all over the world to work in the coalfields.

When driving through this part of West Virginia you are struck by the remoteness. You’re three hours from a four -lane highway,—no large malls, no signs of change in the last forty years. In fact, what you find is abandoned shops, empty downtowns, hundreds of coal trucks speeding down country roads, and hundreds of coal mines buried deep in the mountains.

You also find many of the larger mines closed, abandoned—the mines that made the area rich and famous. Photographing these men and their families is a privilege; getting their story out, the truth out, is important to all of them. Each one of them is struggling every year with the coal companies, which are cutting benefits for  black lung and other job-related disabilities. Welch is scarcely a shadow of its former self.

Today, mechanization and non-union mining have left the area destitute. In Addition, many of the coal companies have treated the people there with disdain and have taken advantage of the miners and their families. Every miner will tell you that in private. Black lung, heart disease, diabetes and drug abuse are just a few of the problems that have come with poverty in Appalachia.

Black lung disease is on the rise among all the miners after several years of decline. Many of the formerly rich towns in the area are now little more than ghost towns and the only jobs that pay more than minimum wage are the most dangerous jobs in the world—mining jobs. Very few people here have health insurance or access to medical clinics.

The following images are from the past 3 years of my photo documentary work. In the context of a national economic crisis that affects many of us, this project is a reminder that some of our fellow countrymen have had it much worse for a long time and they should not be forgotten. Many of these men will die before my next trip into coal country, and there is no shortage of men getting sick to take their place. In fact, they need to be celebrated as heroes.

Here are some of the photos i took:

Robert Johnson Sr., a former coal miner, suffers from black lung disease, poses with his son, coal miner Robert Johnson Jr., at his home in Black Eagle, West Virginia. © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Brian McKinney, 63, of Rock City, looks at a recent x-ray that shows his chest filled with built-up coal dust from 37 years of working in the mines. © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Ollie Bishop attends a Sunday service at High Knob Church in Whitesville breathing from an oxygen tank. Bishop can barely talk, walk, or breathe. He was a supervisor in mines. © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Shortwall miners exit a mine shaft at the end of their shift. They spend their work days behind machines cutting coal seams 3-5 feet high and up to half a mile long exposed to high levels of coal dust at risk of roof collapse and the explosion of gases. © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Dangerous coal dust surrounds a miner working in a shortwall mine underground. © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Miners working in a shortwall mine. Shortwall miners spend much of their working lives in coal seams 3 to 5 feet in height, in intense dust and at risk from mine roof collapse and/or explosion from gases. © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Dr. Forehand, an expert in Black Lung disease, examines a chest x-ray of a coal miner at the Tug River Black Lung Clinic where he comes once a week. © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Winston Dehart, Sr., and his wife Hazel have been fighting to receive Black Lung benefits in the more than 20 years since he retired from coal mining. Dehart, Sr., is on oxygen 24 hours a day and his wife has diabetes. © Les Stone / Greenpeace

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