Appalachian coal miners suffer from the most serious form of black lung disease
NEW CONCORD – In 1970, Gary Garbas was a data processing supervisor for a company in Cleveland.
A year later, the 31-year-old husband and father found himself without a job and desperate to support his family.
“We moved out here to the farm,” Gary said, referring to a large tract of land several miles north of New Concord. “I was raising cattle, but I needed something to supplement my income.”
The coal industry was big business in Appalachia in 1971, and mining kept food on the tables of many area families. Unfortunately, today many of those men who labored below the ground are now laboring for every breath as they suffer the consequences of the mining industry.
Gary is one of about 260 former coal miners in the area who receive services through the black lung program at Genesis HealthCare System.
“I think it was around 1971 when I went to work for Peabody Coal in Coshocton because at the time coal mining was about the best paying job around here,” Gary said. “I didn’t like it at first – it was dusty, dirty and dangerous.”
Each morning, according to Gary, miners would arrive at the bath house where they would change into their work clothes before boarding a vehicle that would take them to the mine.
Gary said there was a camaraderie among miners that was unique to the trade. The mines were dangerous and miners looked out for each other.
“When you went to work it was quiet,” Gary said. “Everyone was thinking about the work ahead and the dangers. It was a different story on the way home, there was a lot of talking we were happy to make it through another day.”
When the mines shut down in Coshocton, Gary accepted an opportunity to travel west for work.
“After about two years, coal mining gets in your blood,” Gary said. “The friendships you make are unlike no other. So when Peabody shut down in Coshocton I went to Utah and worked in the mines for two and a half years.”
Gary’s wife, Joyce, stayed here to care for their children and farm. When she could, she traveled to Utah to visit her husband.
Gary spent about 10 years in the mines. While he enjoyed the friendships he gained and was appreciative of the earnings, his labor was not without consequence.
“We had a number of bad falls, where rocks and debris caved in,” Gary said. “I was injured several times.”
Unfortunately, a job site injury was not the worst consequence of Gary’s mining days.
In the 1970s, about 140 miners were killed on the job every year according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But the threat that stalks miners like Gary who survived one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, is not immediately identified.
The inhalation and accumulation of coal dust over time causes pneumoconiosis – black lung – a coal mining disease that has been responsible for more than 78,000 deaths since 1968 according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
“Four or five years into mining, I started getting shortness of breath and got bronchial emphysema,” Gary said. “A few years ago, I found out I have black lung disease.”
Occupational Safety and Health data shows coal miners across Appalachia suffer from the most serious form of black lung disease, with 962 cases so far this decade in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Like many miners, Gary had to fight for black lung benefits, but says Genesis’ black lung clinic helped him with the benefit process as well as treatment.
“I probably wouldn’t be alive if I hadn’t started going to the clinic,” Gary said.
In 2014, Gary completed a 5K race after losing 70 pounds.
“My breathing has improved tremendously and I feel a lot better,” Gary said. “I see a lot of people on breathing machines and I’m just glad I don’t have to do that.”
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