Black lung killed her husband and hundreds more in Kentucky. Now there’s a memorial.

By the time Patty Amburgey’s husband left the mines, the early signs of black lung disease were already beginning to show.

In the years that followed, the disease took its slow and devastating progression. At 65, Crawford Lee Amburgey died blind, unable to feel his legs or arms, and constantly short of breath.

His name will be one of more than 280 etched on a headstone and placed at Riverside Park in Whitesburg on Sunday — a memorial to the hundreds of coal miners from Eastern Kentucky who have died from black lung.

Patty Amburgey, secretary of the local Black Lung Association in Letcher County, said the stone will have a two-fold meaning for her: it will forever memorialize her husband and other miners who died from the disease; and encourage lawmakers to support miners and their families afflicted by black lung, and encourage them to impose stricter regulations on the coal and silica dust that cause the disease.

“By putting that memorial up there, that is recognition for them and their families, and it is also recognition to say we’re making a statement for them. Coal miners do count, they do matter, and it’s time to let our voices be heard,” Amburgey said. “It is not only a memorial to the deceased, it’s a memorial to the men who exist today, to say we do count, we do need your help.”

Like the wives of many diseased miners, Amburgey cared for her husband for years before he died. She took him to the hospital to drain fluid from his legs, turned his oxygen tank on high when he was short of breath, and, in his final days, slept on a couch next to his hospital bed.

Crawford Amburgey worked 33 years in and around coal mines in Letcher and Knott counties. When his bosses noticed he was slowing down, they laid him off.

He was diagnosed with black lung when he was 50. During one visit to the hospital, his doctors performed X-rays that showed the edges of his lungs were already black, and small holes had started to form in the middle of his lungs — like they had been shot with BBs, his wife said.

“When he put up his X-rays, I thought I was gonna hit the floor,” Patty Amburgey said.

Patty Amburgey picture.jpg
Patty Amburgey holds up a photo of her husband, Crawford, who died of black lung at the age of 65. Will Wright

Further biopsies showed the the disease was progressing. After six years, he required constant care and was in pain almost all the time.

“The pain patches didn’t take away his pain. No matter what was done for him, it didn’t take the pain away of him trying to breath,” Patty Amburgey said. “It still sometimes gets to me. When you see a loved one needing care, and no doctor can give it or you can’t give it, that’s a hard pain.”

Because his lungs could only bring in so much air, his body diverted oxygen away from his legs and arms. His legs would eventually turn black, and he lost all feeling below his groin.

“When he passed away I hadn’t slept in three days because he screamed for me 24/7,” Amburgey said. “He was delirious, I’m assuming, but when I would go to him he knew who I was.”

Amburgey’s husband died at 10 in the morning, two days before Thanksgiving.

Black lung is incurable and usually leads to an early death. Recent studies have shown a spike in the disease’s prevalence among miners in Central Appalachia, and it’s becoming more common among younger miners in their 30s and 40s.

Amid the spike, the per-ton tax on coal companies that funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which helps support miners and their widows afflicted by the disease, was slashed by 55 percent earlier this year, leaving many black lung advocates fearing that the fund may eventually become insolvent, or require taxpayer assistance.

Courtney Rhoades, the black lung organizer at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which organized a trip to Washington D.C. for miners to voice their concerns about the trust fund earlier this year, said the memorial will be one more way to show lawmakers the impact of black lung in the region.

“This a personal fight to Eastern Kentucky, and this is just one way we’re showing it,” Rhoades said.

Amburgey said she hopes the memorial will also push lawmakers to create stricter regulations to curb the amount of silica dust that miners inhale.

Many of the remaining coal seams in Central Appalachia are thin, leaving miners to cut through large amounts of silica-laden rock to mine the coal. That silica has contributed to many cases of black lung in recent years, according to Brandon Crum, a radiologist in Pikeville who has collected X-rays on hundreds of miners afflicted by the disease.

Recent data compiled by Crum and handed over to the Central for Disease Control will provide further evidence that black lung progresses even after a miner leaves the workplace. That data will be formalized and published in the coming months, he said.

Currently, federal regulators do not have a separate silica regulation for miners. The Mine Safety and Health Administration, in August, opened a formal request for information about silica dust — the first step in creating a separate silica rule.

“The request for information, I think that’s definitely a step in the right direction,” Crum said. “Silica is going to be a major component (of black lung disease).”

If you go

What: The Black Lung Association of Southeatsern Kentucky will host a memorial ceremony for Kentucky coal miners who have died of black lung disease, and erect a memorial stone in their honor.

Where: Riverside Park, Whitesburg

When: Sunday, Oct. 13 at 2 p.m.

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, a national service project made possible in Eastern Kentucky with support from the Galloway Family Foundation. Based in Pikeville, Wright joined the Herald-Leader in January 2018 and reports on Eastern Kentucky.