Heart and Logic in ‘Soul Full of Coal Dust’

Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia by Chris Hamby is a work of investigative advocacy journalism which discusses the medical and legal realities of black lung, a disease common among coal miners. Hamby, now a Pulitzer Prize winner, started writing about coal country in 2011 with a piece for The Center for Public Integrity. Following that short article, Hamby spent years in West Virginia alongside miners and their advocates while researching this book. As an avid reader of nonfiction, and the granddaughter of a coal miner, I was eager to read Soul Full of Coal Dust.

While stereotypes and subtle insults are somewhat common in other books about Appalachia, Hamby’s book contains none. Instead, it is a beautifully crafted deep dive into the horrific realities of black lung, what one of Hamby’s sources describes as “one of the largest industrial medicine disasters that the United States has ever seen.” While black lung disease is the aforementioned disaster, Hamby also discusses the benefits system which was ostensibly created to care for miners and their widows. 

Of course, many people are aware of the environmental damage done in the name of natural resources like coal, but Hamby demonstrates that coal companies have inflicted unspeakable human damage alongside that environmental damage. Hamby accomplishes this through telling the stories of men like Gary Fox and John Cline fighting uphill battles against a law firm older than the state of West Virginia. 

When Gary Fox first filed for black lung benefits, his claim was denied, and without that financial assistance, he was unable to retire. Fox worked many additional years in the mines, inhaling more coal dust, in order to pay for his daughter’s college education. Meanwhile, John Cline worked as a benefits counselor at a clinic where many coal miners were treated. After watching miners attempt to fight their legal battles alone, he attended law school to become one of the lawyers who would push for change in the black lung benefits system.

Hamby does a magnificent job of engaging readers’ emotions in the way he tells these stories and others, and as some of the stories approach unbearable sadness, he gently steers us back to the scientific and legal grounds upon which his argument depends. Hamby provides the heart and logic necessary to explain and explore “the intersection of bureaucracy, corporate power, and human suffering.” His reporting reveals the ways in which miners have been harmed by coal companies, their lawyers, and even by doctors. 

At times, the data needed to support Hamby’s findings did not exist. For example, Dr. Paul Wheeler of Johns Hopkins University was an “expert witness” for coal company lawyers in hundreds of black lung benefits cases, and Hamby went through thousands of documents to discover that Dr. Wheeler never once testified that a miner did have black lung. Hamby additionally discovered that Dr. Wheeler’s assessment was proven wrong in numerous cases after a miner died and black lung was found during the autopsy. It was actually Hamby’s reporting for the Center for Public Integrity, in collaboration with ABC News, which led Johns Hopkins to suspend and later shut down its black lung unit.

Because the stories Hamby tells are detailed and nuanced, some reviews have suggested that Soul Full of Coal Dust is a bit too long, but I disagree. In fact, I finished this book more quickly than I expected to, and I certainly cried over it more than I expected to. Perhaps I was more emotionally invested than others, but I hope that Hamby’s writing will make the plight of coal miners and their advocates real and personal for all readers.

NONFICTION
Soul Full of Coal Dust: A Fight for Breath and Justice in Appalachia
By Chris Hamby
Little, Brown, and Company
Published August 18, 2020