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Series Exposing Coal Companies’, Lawyers', Doctors’ Roles in Black Lung Denials Wins Pulitzer

Retired miner Steve Day, 67, needs supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day to breathe. Photo by F. Brian Ferguson/Center for Public Integrity

An investigative series by Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity about how coal companies fighting claims of black lung disease, and the disability benefits that sick and dying coal miners are due when they are diagnosed with the crippling and fatal disease, employ “cutthroat” law firms and a select group of physicians—including a small unit of Johns Hopkins radiologists—was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

As we reported in October, the series was published at a time when there is an alarming increase in the number of coal miners—including younger and younger miners—diagnosed with deadly black lung disease. Hamby said:

This was more than just a project to me. I spent a lot of time in West Virginia with people who were slowly suffocating to death and they had been essentially screwed by a system that was completely stacked against them and they had no recourse. These are some of the most voiceless people in the country.

Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine,” revealed that industry-hired lawyers withheld key evidence in miners’ cases, and doctors at the John Hopkins Medical Institutions consistently denied the existence of advanced black lung on X-rays—even when other experts saw evidence of the disease.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said at the time:

I know full well that coal companies have been cheating miners since the day coal was hand-loaded and weighed, and of the cold corporate "code of ethics" they operate under. But even with my years of experience in the mines and as a union leader, I was sickened and angered by what I read.

Read more from Trumka on black lung and how it killed his coal miner father in 1999.

Shortly after the series was published, Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung program.

The series was produced in partnership with the ABC News Investigative Unit, whose work included an in-depth "Nightline" segment.

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