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

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

In the parking lot before the conference started, a miner named David Badoni pointed to a nearby hill. A beige mesa looms in the distance, revealing layers of sandstone, shale, and coal.

“All these mesas – there are people living on this road,” Badoni said. “So, the tunnel looks like this, heading south.”

“Which mine is it?” I asked.

“Navajo (mine),” Badoni said.

Badoni says he took inventories at mines across the Four Corners that were regularly exposed to mining dust.

Years later, as he and others are attending these meetings, they are suffering from black lung disease, otherwise known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, in coal mines such as the Navajo mines in San Juan County. He said it was because he was working. Currently in Upper Fruitland.

Badoni points to a mine known as Navajo Mine A3.

“And Area 3 (Navajo Mine A3) goes in that direction,” he said. “And there’s a crossroads over there, and that people live on the other side of the mine. So the only way they can access their homes is through the mine that’s there. There are people I know who live there.

“Who has it?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Finally inside the gym.

Black lung display by Canyonlands Healthcare.

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

Positive Nature is a home healthcare company that primarily supports uranium miners.

But today, Thomas has translated information about how to apply for federal black lung benefits into Navajo so that miners like Badoni and their families can understand.

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. They approached her and asked if she would facilitate a conference on how to benefit from black lung for others in her community.

After the last conference she hosted in March, there was so much interest from miners and local medical companies that Thomas decided to move his next conference here at the Walter Collins Gymnasium.

Halfway through the meeting, Thomas told people sitting in the crowd that he had spoken to the Upper Fruitland Chapter House about turning on the heating in the gymnasium.

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

Even with Thomas’ translation, black-lung miners face barriers to capitalizing on their profits.

Michelle Carter, a nurse who heads the Black Lung Clinic program at Canyonlands Health Care in Page, Arizona, said even miners who get tested are subject to scrutiny from mine owners, known as “operators,” before they make a profit. said to face it.

“When you’re talking about the operator’s health care providers working with the operator’s lawyers, they’ll even say, ‘It can’t be black lung, that miner is overweight,'” Carter said. “‘It shouldn’t be black lungs. That miner has a history of asthma.'”

In general, Carter said the odds tended to favor the coal companies, as mine owners have their say on whether miners will qualify for federal black lung benefits.

“So the battle is going on over every possibility from the operator’s point of view, so they’re trying to challenge claims from potential moves going forward and whatever they have in their arsenal to prevent payment for it. I will use it, there will be benefits,” she said.

According to Carter, about 12% have possible black lung disease, based on miners screened last year.

Approximately 10% return with some level of positive diagnosis of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.

That’s about 16 patients in total, and Carter expects that number to continue to grow as more tests are conducted and more miners come forward.

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

Canyonlands also sent representatives to Black Lang Meetings to encourage miners to take advantage of free testing.

    Walter Collins Gymnasium on the edge of Navajo Nation.

Walter Collins Gymnasium on the edge of Navajo Nation.

Alex Osif, a Navajo, Hopi, Pima, former Canyonlands miner and black lung benefit counselor, said after the conference that miners have historically been exploited by coal companies. I’m here.

“As I mentioned there, you have a dust collector, you have a dust filter in the cab, you have to comply with the law and you have to replace it every day,” he said. No. It’s a mining shortcut, of course, and one of them is about human safety and health awareness.”

A spokeswoman for Peabody Energy, the coal mining company that owns the Kayenta mine, declined to be interviewed by KSJD, but said, “The health and safety of Peabody employees is our top priority.”

“Although dust concentrations in our operations are below regulatory limits, we are partnering with external industrial hygienists to better understand and further reduce or mitigate all occupational exposures. ”

Black lung disease itself is an irreversible disease, but there is still a cure for those who have it. I want to convince him to get tested for black lung.

David Badoni says having the disease radically changed his life.

“I feel it when I wake up every day,” he said. I feel it, the tension, the pull around my chest, like the strips.In addition, my father died of uranium.I worked with him.My uncle’s Two, my father, my father’s brother, then my mother’s brother, both of my uncles died from uranium, so man, two of my brothers that I worked with, they are also covered by this program So they have the same suffering.”

Thomas hopes that Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren will attend the next Black Lang meeting.

The prevalence of black lung disease and the number of miners benefiting from it are less known to Navajo miners than to Appalachian miners. The next Black Lang meeting for Navajo miners is scheduled for his June.

This is just the beginning of KSJD’s report on the black lungs of Navajo miners.

Chris reports on disease outbreaks in the region and whether Navajo miners face unique barriers to benefiting.

For this article, Navajo Times employee Laverne Watchman, who provided translation services, and Maeve Conran, editor-in-chief of Rocky Mountain Community Radio, and award-winning NPR correspondent, who helped guide this article. Special thanks to Howard Berkes for helping me.

    Artwork beside the tunnel that allows people to reach the Upper Fruitland Chapter House.

Artwork beside the tunnel that allows people to reach the Upper Fruitland Chapter House.

Copyright 2023 KSJD. KSJD.

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