This story was originally published by KSJD in Cortez, Colorado.
Before it closed in 2019, the Kayenta Mine in northeastern Arizona provided high-paying jobs to Navajo coal miners who lived nearby.
But some say that working there, and at other coal mines across the Navajo Nation, has given miners lasting health problems, including black lung disease.
After driving across the mine for about an hour, Alex Osif, a former coal miner and current black lung benefits counselor, begins to slow his pickup truck down.
“It’s sad,” says Osif. “I worked a lot of this. I see it go up. Now, I see it go down.”
As a black lung benefits counselor for Canyonlands Healthcare, he helps retired coal miners – occasionally even former coworkers – find out if they’re eligible for federal benefits.
Osif parks on the side of the road and steps out onto the dirt.
A sign hanging on a barbed wire fence warns us we can go no further.
At one time, constellations of juniper and piñon pine adorned the landscape. All that’s left now are miles of replanted fields that bake in the sun.
Osif points to them.
“That’s all mined out,” he says. “Even over that hump. You can see a drill still sitting way up there on top, that white machinery. That’s a overburden drill. He drilled the pre-cut bench. He drilled that.”
Osif, who is Navajo, Hopi, and Pima, is describing the process of strip mining, which involves removing topsoil in order to get at coal seams that are closer to the surface.
“And then they’d shoot it,” he says. “And those drills are going about 100 feet down. And they fill it with dynamite, they shoot it. Dragline comes, uncovers a coal. So that’s what that drill did.”
Today, he’s showing me around his old workplace: the Kayenta and Black Mesa mines, both of which were operated by the coal company Peabody Energy.
Osif started out as a belt line laborer at Black Mesa, where his father worked. His job was to observe transfers of coal onto the conveyor belt and ensure none fell off.
Later he became a safety officer at the Kayenta Mine.
Black Mesa ceased operations in 2005 – Kayenta, in 2019. The fields are mostly all that’s left of these mines.
According to Osif and others at Canyonlands, coal miners who worked at mines like Kayenta and Black Mesa before and even after tougher mine safety and health regulations were implemented are now suffering from black lung.
And Osif expects more and more miners in the Navajo Nation to become increasingly disabled by the disease in the near future.
At the same time, the closure of these coal mines represents a blow to the community, he says, for a variety of reasons.
“Like I said, the money was good,” Osif says. “The offerings of retirement when you were at age was good, if they offered it. They offered incentives for early retirement to a lot of the company people. They all grasp on it.”
The dirt road we took to get here was developed by the coal company, he says, and is still used as a school bus route for people who live in or around the Kayenta Mine.
The mine has also long provided those who live among the area’s canyons and hillsides with drinking water.
Even the land that the mine is located on is critical to herders who let their livestock graze in the Black Mesa region.
As we head back across the mine in Osif’s car, he says he’s always felt uneasy with his exposure to dust as a coal miner, especially when he worked as a driller at the Kayenta Mine.
“About this time every year when the wind blows, and we’re in the pits, that’s like a constant fan for dust coming off of the high wall,” he says. “And you’re working down in the pit. And me having that job as a core driller and not being in a cab – I go home with sand in my shirt, my coveralls, my mouth, my nose, my hard hat, my glasses. Definitely. And I tried to do as much as I can to get in there, hurry up, get out.”
Black lung is irreversible, and is caused by breathing in coal or silica dust for even short periods of time.
The lungs develop fibrotic tissue that fights the presence of coal or silica particles. That tissue grows over time, severely scarring the lungs and increasingly hampering breathing.
“This is fine powder, like flour,” Osif says. “If there’s no wind to blow it out, it sticks right there. It don’t come off, and just beds in your pores.”
Michelle Carter, a nurse who leads the black lung clinic program at Canyonlands, told KSJD that all 10 of the coal miners they’ve helped get access to federal black lung benefits in the last year worked at either the Black Mesa or Kayenta mines, or both.
“Again, our population is small, but each month we’re adding more and more patients,” Carter says. “So that number is, again, change reflective to how many patients we continue to bring into the program.”
A spokeswoman for Peabody Energy did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.
Part of Osif’s job now is to file claims for benefits on behalf of coal miners who have black lung. Even after they receive benefits, he says he checks up on them regularly to see how they’re doing.
“This is his disease, that’s not going to end,” he says. “You have to make that fine talk of telling him: You’re kinda like on your deathbed. But you put it in ease. And every year you go ask him, you go visit him, ask him, ‘How you doing? Are you better?’”
In the parking lot before we part ways, Osif says he’s worried there’s a chance he might develop black lung later in life, like some of his friends and coworkers, but that he may not qualify for benefits.
Coal companies have a history of opposing benefits claims, often citing other medical problems as causes of a coal miner’s disability.
Osif has asthma and worries that it may be used against him by Peabody Energy to fight a black lung claim, even if he’s diagnosed with the disease.
“And you notice I got a hoarse voice,” he says. “So I know probably, I’ll say probably in another five years, I’ll start to be breathing. But I do have wheezes, but I was diagnosed with allergy asthma. And again, like if I file for black lung benefits, the company’s gonna pick that up while he was admitted, you know, they’re gonna use that against me.”
He’s tested negative twice, but knows that the disease can develop many years after miners stop working. He says he’ll keep getting tested, and encourage others to do the same.
This is the second story in a series by KSJD on black lung among Navajo coal miners. The first story is available here.