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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Working in a Strip Mine

Air Date: Week of

Autumn Campbell interviews her father about working in a strip mine in Kentucky. He suffers from "rock lung" or silicosis of the lung, but says mining's a good living.


YOUNG: Another thing Erik Reece captures in his book is how this issue splits the region’s people. Someone against mountaintop removal mines probably knows someone who works at one.
They might even live under the same roof.

Autumn Campbell knows something about this. She interviewed her father, Danny, who works at a Kentucky strip mine. Danny Hoot says it’s a good living. Autumn sees the toll it’s taking on her father and wonders if it’s any way to live.

D. CAMPBELL: Well, my name is Danny Campbell, and most everybody in this area knows me as Hoot Campbell. I am a retired surface miner right now. I worked for 25 years as a rotary drill operator. I was the one who drilled the drill holes. So the explosives man would come by and put in the powder and the shot, and would break up the rock so the dozers and the loaders and everything could move it. I was the one that done all the drilling, and the patterns and everything, for that work.

A. CAMPBELL: That man is my father. He is 56 years old. I remember him working. I remember him a few times doing things with the family. But I mostly remember him being gone. If you listen close enough, you can hear he has a problem breathing and talking for a long period of time.

D. CAMPBELL: I provided a good living for the family, provided everything we needed to function at that time. It made the payments, bought the groceries, bought the Christmas gifts. And it was just our way of, or my way of, living at that time.

A. CAMPBELL: He wanted to provide for his family. The hours were long; not everyone could work them, but my father could.

D. CAMPBELL: We worked six, seven days a week. And the high wall driller, he would work ten, 12, 14 hours a day. Sometimes it would be two, three days before I would go home to see the family. A lot of times the family would come up and visit me. At that time I had two boys, and they would come up on the hill and they would visit me. It was just a lot of hours, a lot of long hours spending at that time. That was when the coal boom was really on and everybody was working.

A. CAMPBELL: I can recall one time playing softball together when I was in middle school. A few years after this, I can remember him having to quit, but I didn’t know why.

D. CAMPBELL: I had to take, I was retired, from medical. I found out that I had what they call rock lung, from running a rotary drill. And I had to…I got where I couldn’t work in the dust anymore and I had to get out. And I took a medical retirement. For a high wall driller it is something like what the deep miners have as rock dust, except when a high wall driller drills on the outside he drills the rock, the sand rock. And in the sand rock is a little shiny particle called silica. When you breath it, you take in the silica, and it will stick to your lung and you’ll have…sometimes, if you have a moist lung, it will stick more in the moist lung than it will in a dry lung. And it will compact and get hard and cause you to have difficulty in breathing.

A. CAMPBELL: At first, I didn’t understand what was going on. Not being able to go on walks with me, and play softball with me, any more. Eventually it escalated to where he couldn’t even walk up the steps without getting winded. Now he can’t even walk across the kitchen. As I grow older, I came to better understand his illness and what he can and cannot do.

D. CAMPBELL: Well, when you get that, after it gets so bad, you can’t take the air, the volume of air in that you need to function, and your activities all just about come to an end. There’s very few things that you can do when you get rock lung. After a while you’ll get to the point that you’ll have to have oxygen, you’ll have to carry an oxygen container around with you to get enough oxygen to breath. You won’t be able to breathe in the normal air.

A. CAMPBELL: Rock lung is often mistaken for black lung, but trust me, it’s not the same. Black lung you can cough up. Rock lung, you can’t. Rock lung is like having cement in your lungs.

D. CAMPBELL: Today, the surface mining is so much better. In the ‘70s you’d bring a new piece of machinery up on the hill, it didn’t have to have a cab on it at that time. But now the federal has stepped in. My first three or four years I run drill a that didn’t even have a cab on it; I walked behind it out in the weather and out in the cold and heat and rain and the dust. You can’t do that nowadays. It’s a whole lot safer.

A. CAMPBELL: Even though mining has improved, it still may not be the best option.

D. CAMPBELL: I would recommend it. If anybody likes to fool with the old heavy equipment, I think I would recommend them working on a strip job. Right at the present there is not a whole lot unless they go to college, get a degree in something they’ll fall back on, either working on a strip job or working in the deep mines. The pay is good, but the dangers are terrible, you know. I recommend, highly recommend it for the kids to stay in school as long as they can and get a degree in something. They may have to leave home, but they can always come back. You can always come back home when you can’t go nowhere else.

CAMPBELL: Even after all he has went through with mining he still recommends it. I do not understand why, and I probably never will. The only thing I know, if you have family in the mining profession, you better let them know that you love them and enjoy every minute you have with them while you can. Or while they still can.

YOUNG: Autumn Campbell’s portrait of her father Danny is part of the Appalachian Media Institute’s series “Living with Coal in Eastern Kentucky” and comes to us via PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.



Appalachian Media Institute


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