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Retired Navajo coal miners say they have black lung disease from mine work

A cardboard box serving as a sign for the meeting on black lung disease in Upper Fruitland, New Mexico.
Chris Clements / KSJD
A cardboard box serving as a sign for the meeting on black lung disease in Upper Fruitland, New Mexico.

It’s a bitterly cold, gusty morning outside the Walter Collins Gymnasium in Upper Fruitland, New Mexico, where the meeting on black lung disease is about to begin.

In the parking lot before the meeting starts, a miner named David Badoni gestures over to the nearby hills. Beige-colored mesas loom in the distance, revealing layers of sandstone, shale and coal.

“All these mesas – there's people that live down this way,” says Badoni. “And the mine pit is like this, going south.”

“Which mine is that?” I ask.

“The Navajo (Mine),” Badoni says.

Badoni says he did inventory in mines throughout the Four Corners, where he was regularly exposed to coal mine dust.

Now, years later, he and others coming to these meetings say they have black lung disease – otherwise known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis – from working at mines like the Navajo Mine in San Juan County, which is only a ten minute drive from where we are now in Upper Fruitland.

Badoni points toward a mine known as Navajo Mine A3.

“And then, the area three (Navajo Mine A3) goes that way,” he says. “And then there's crossroads over there, that people – people live on the other side of the mine. So the only way they can get access to their home is going through the mine out there. And there’s people that live out there that I know.”

“Who have it?” I ask, referring to the disease.

“Yes,” he says.

Eventually we head inside the gym.

A display on black lung by Canyonlands Healthcare.
Chris Clements / KSJD
A display on black lung by Canyonlands Healthcare.

Orphelia Thomas is a member of the Navajo Nation and an employee at Positive Nature Homecare.

Positive Nature is a home health care company that primarily assists uranium miners.

But today, Thomas is translating information on how to apply for federal black lung benefits into the Navajo language so coal miners like Badoni and their families can follow along.

Benefits include monthly payments to support miners disabled by black lung.

Some of the uranium miners Thomas assisted for Positive Nature were also coal miners at one point, too. They approached her and asked if she’d be willing to facilitate meetings on how to get black lung benefits for others in the community. She said yes.

After the last meeting she hosted in March, Thomas decided to move the next one here, to the Walter Collins Gymnasium, because of the high level of interest from miners and local health care companies.

Partway through the meeting, Thomas tells those sitting in the crowd that she just spoke to the Upper Fruitland Chapter House about turning on the heat in the gym, which is freezing cold, but that –

“They ran out of propane to turn on the heaters here,” she says. “That's why.”

Even with Thomas’s translations, miners who have black lung still face barriers to successfully accessing benefits.

Michelle Carter, a nurse who leads the black lung clinic program at Canyonlands Healthcare in Page, Arizona, says that even miners who do get tested will face scrutiny from the mine owners, known as “operators,” before they’re granted benefits.

“When you're talking about the operator's medical providers, who work hand in hand with the operator's attorneys, they will even say, ‘It can't be black lung, that miner is overweight,’” Carter says. “‘It can’t be black lung, that miner has a history of asthma.’”

In general, Carter says that since mine owners have input in whether or not a miner qualifies for federal black lung benefits, the odds tend to skew in favor of the coal company.

“So there will be a fight for every single potential from the operator’s standpoint, so they're looking to dispute a claim from any potential movement forward, and they're going to use anything in their arsenal to prevent having to pay out on that benefit,” she says.

Based on miners they’ve screened in the last year, around 12% have the potential to have black lung disease, according to Carter.

Roughly 10% will come back with a positive diagnosis of some level of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.

That comes out to about 16 patients total, a number that Carter expects will continue to go up as more testing is done and more miners come forward.

Some miners are also seen at other clinics in the region, and some are not seen at all, so the actual number of cases is likely much higher, Carter says.

Canyonlands also sent representatives to the black lung meeting, to encourage miners to take advantage of free testing.

The Walter Collins Gymnasium, on the edge of the Navajo Nation.
Chris Clements / KSJD
The Walter Collins Gymnasium, on the edge of the Navajo Nation.

Alex Osif, who is Navajo, Hopi, Pima, and a former miner and black lung benefits counselor for Canyonlands, says after the meeting ends that historically, miners have been taken advantage of by coal companies.

“Like I stated in there, you got dust collectors, you got dust filters in your cabs, and it should abide by law, they should be changed out daily,” he says. “They're not. So of course, they're shortcuts that the mines take. One of them is on human safety and health awareness.”

A spokesperson for Peabody Energy, a coal mining company which owned the Kayenta Mine, declined an interview with KSJD but said, “The health and safety of Peabody employees is our top priority.”

They added, “While concentrations of dust at our operations are below regulated limits, we partner with external industrial hygienists so we can better understand and further reduce or mitigate all occupational exposures.”

Black lung disease itself is an irreversible illness, but there are still treatments available to those who have it. Osif hopes to convince miners in the crowd – some of whom were his coworkers – to get tested for black lung as soon as possible.

David Badoni says the health problems he has from working in coal mines have fundamentally changed the way he lives day-to-day life.

“I feel it every day when I get up,” he says. “I feel it when I'm walking. I feel it when I'm working. Or shopping in town. I feel it. That, the strain, the pull I have around my chest, like a strip. And moreover, my father, he died of uranium. I used to work with him. Two of my uncles, my dad, my dad’s brother. And then my mom’s brother. Both of my uncles passed on with uranium. So, man, two of my brothers I used to work with. They're under this program too. So they have the same affliction.”

For her part, Thomas says she hopes to have Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren attend the next black lung meeting.

The extent of black lung disease, and of miners receiving benefits for it, is not as well known for Navajo coal miners as it is for miners in Appalachia. The next black lung meeting for Navajo miners is planned for June.

This is the first story in a series by KSJD on black lung among Navajo coal miners. The second is available here.

Chris will be reporting on the occurrence of the disease in the region, and whether Navajo miners face unique barriers in receiving benefits.

Special thanks for this story goes to Navajo Times employee Laverne Watchman, who provided translation services, as well as to Maeve Conran, managing editor of Rocky Mountain Community Radio, and to Howard Berkes, a former correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit, who helped guide the reporting for this piece.

Artwork on the side of the tunnel people take to get to the Upper Fruitland Chapter House.
Chris Clements / KSJD
Artwork on the side of the tunnel to get to the Upper Fruitland Chapter House.

Chris Clements is a former news reporter for KSJD. He had previously covered literary arts as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily in Chautauqua, New York, and graduated with a degree in English from Arizona State University. At KSJD, Chris has collaborated with KUNC (northern Colorado NPR) on water conservation stories, and had his spots regularly featured on NPR's national newscasts.