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    New book tells of coal industry's lingering effects on health and economy

    September 18, 2023 - Kent Jackson, The Citizens' Voice, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.


      Sep. 17—From orange creeks to 100-foot culm banks, the harm that the coal industry did to the environment of Northeast Pennsylvania still is easy to see. Less obvious are lingering effects of the industry on the finances, health and outlook of residents, an anthropologist writes in a new book. Paul Shackel tells how past woes still plague descendants of miners today in "The Ruined Anthracite: Historical Trauma in Coal-Mining Communities."

      While leading archaeological projects in Lattimer, Eckley and Pardeesville since 2009, Shackel learned about the working and living conditions that mining families endured in the communities where people dug and processed anthracite, the hard coal of Northeast Pennsylvania.

      During summers in the Hazleton area, Shackel, a professor at University of Maryland, and his students also got to know local residents. He found out that people in the anthracite region trailed the national averages for wealth, health and even happiness. Several years ago, an article got Shackel's attention. In the article, economists ranked the region of Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre and Scranton last out of 367 metropolitan areas after reviewing what people told the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about their satisfaction with life.

      "I thought that there may be a connection between the long-term hardships people suffered working in the coal industry and its reputation as the unhappiest places in the US," Shackel replied in an email when asked why he wrote 'The Ruined Anthracite'. "So my book is about documenting these long-term hardships and the impact it is having on the contemporary community."

      Shackel isn't the first to suggest that the burdens of the past carry forward. "A growing literature indicates historical trauma can harm a community's health and well being," he writes. "... Therefore experiencing trauma in the form of war, genocide, domestic abuse or famine affects not only the current generation but also later generations in the form of higher rates of substance abuse, some disease, depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem and violence."

      For examples, studies found negative effects on children of slaves, Holocaust survivors, Native people forced from their land and Palestinian refugees. Paul Farmer, a doctor and anthropologist whom Shackel cites, looked at historical inequalities to explain health disparities in low-income regions of Haiti and other places where he treated drug-resistant tuberculosis. Drawing from stories that miners told about their lives, academic writings, journalism and his own interviews and archaeological digs in mining villages, Shackel describes the historical trauma that miners suffered. They risked lives, limbs and lungs while working underground. Prejudice and corporate power pressed them and their families nearly into slavery. Underpaid and undernourished, miners and their families struggled to pay for food and rent. Company stores overcharged. Company homes were overcrowded. A 1904 report that Shackel uncovered said double homes in Lattimer with two rooms on the first floor and one room on the second floor had as many as 15 to 20 residents.

      A century later, the region's current residents still live in the environmental residue of mining. They breathe fumes from power plants, home furnaces and dust blown off culm banks. Mine fires terminated Centralia and threatened other towns, including Jeanesville. Water turns acidic and carries hazardous metals after leaching through coal workings and waste piles.

      Residents of coal mining communities had an increased risk of 70% for kidney disease, 64% for emphysema and other pulmonary disease and 30% for high blood pressure, a study in West Virginia found. Another study that Shackel cites said diabetics who lived in abandoned mine land had worse cases in early stages and a worse progression.

      In the anthracite region, Shackel discovered that people die of cardiovascular disease at one of the highest rates in the nation, which he thinks the field of epigenetics might partially explain. Epigenetics looks at how markers turn on or off functions of a gene and sustain changes through generations, even when the genes themselves stay the same.

      "The deprivation of health care access and chronic stress related to poor nutrition, poor environmental conditions and underemployment may have transgenerational effects and may harm the contemporary community's general health and well-being," Shackel writes.

      He draws other parallels between present and past. At Amazon and other warehouses of present day, people employed through job agencies receive no benefits but face termination for working slowly or collecting demerits during 12-hour shifts. That makes Shackel think of the surplus labor pool that coal companies created by recruiting immigrants and keeping out competing industries. Miners worked two and three days a week, structural underemployment that prevented them from paying for basic needs. Legal practices prevented injured miners and widows from receiving payments until Pennsylvania enacted workers' compensation in 1915. Child labor laws were laxly enforced until 1938 and in one village 40% of children didn't live to adolescence. Existing within these constraints made miners victims, Shackel writes, of structural violence. When silk garment factories opened in Northeast Pennsylvania, many wives and daughters of miners found full-time employment, which helped families afford food and housing as mines slowed production. But in return for 60-hour weeks in dusty factories, the region's garment workers earned less than people doing similar jobs in the industrial Northeast states. As mining declined, economic uncertainty persisted for families of Northeast Pennsylvania.

      Shackel gives examples. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, miners divided into competing unions that disagreed how to apportion the remaining work. Some miners dug bootleg coal or moved away. Others spent weekdays on the job in New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia but returned home on weekends to wives who worked in the garment factories, which eventually moved South or offshore. The Beryllium Corp. and its successors provided jobs in Hazleton from 1957 to 1981, but many workers contracted berylliosis, a respiratory disease similar to miners' asthma, and the company buried carcinogens on land along the Hazleton rail trail corridor. CAN DO started the Valmont Industrial Park and recruited companies to the Hazleton area, but by the late 1970s the park was losing companies and the area's unemployment rate approached 10%. Now residents in the Anthracite Region have lower incomes and a higher rate of poverty than the nation as a whole. Northeast Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom 15% of metropolitan statistical areas for residents who have higher education, which affects pay rates. It also reflects a brain drain when people left the region after the coal industry's demise. Coal barons preferred to keep their workers uneducated, but they endowed colleges beyond the region. Children gave up their education when families needed them to work in the mines. In 2014, The New York Times Magazine did an article on drug addiction in Hazleton, where in an earlier era a shot and beer was a standard treatment after a day in the mines to wash down dust. Shackel and his students dug up bottles of various home remedies that indicated how miners tried to manage pain and breathing difficulties. Miners distrusted coal company doctors and gravitated to folk remedies, he writes. At the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, Hazleton was a hotspot. Workers in warehouses and meat-packing plants, particularly, faced greater risks from the disease, while ecommerce grew nationwide at Amazon. For historical comparison, Shackel writes, "Underemployed men eagerly replaced those in the mines who were injured, harmed by black lung disease or killed by explosion or ceiling collapse." In 1916, near the peak of the anthracite production, the death rate for hard coal miners was 4.75 higher than for manufacturing overall. Stricter safety supervision could have prevented many mining accidents, but the workers at greatest risk tended to be the new immigrants. "At the time, they were not considered white and civilized, so they were expendable," Shackel writes. Racial theories, considered junk science today, guided a 42-volume U.S. Senate report on immigration in 1911 and popular works of the era, leading to a view of the new miners as lesser humans. The hardest and most dangerous jobs went to the newest immigrants, Irish Catholics after the potato famine of the 1840s and Eastern and Southern Europeans after the 1880s. Strife in their native nations, such as the Galicia region of Poland where 50,000 people were starving to death a year by 1900, might have led the immigrants to accept their status in the coal fields, at least initially, Shackel writes. Miners who didn't speak English received 20% lower pay during one interval, paid a tax of 3 cents a day that Pennsylvania levied on immigrant miners in 1897 and had to pass exams given in English to get promoted to better paying jobs. In recent years, immigrants who speak Spanish have come to the Hazleton area from the Dominican Republican and other Latin American nations. Their reception from some of the miners' descendants, unfortunately, has been unwelcoming. Hazleton adopted the Illegal Immigrant Relief Act in 2007 that would have punished people for hiring or renting housing to undocumented immigrants but was nullified by federal courts. People tell Shackel that their ancestors worked hard in the mines, but the new immigrants subsist on welfare payments. Shackel's book details how miners planted gardens, canned food, picked berries and hunted to keep from starving, but they also benefitted from government assistance. During the Great Depression when the average Pennsylvanian received yearly government benefits of $183, the average benefit to people in the Anthracite Region was $268, Shackel writes. He also points to the contributions that present-day Hispanic workers and business owners have made to Hazleton's economy while doing hard factory work and sometimes facing racist resistance. One undocumented woman who came from the Dominican Republic to Hazleton said she worked 24/7 cleaning two houses and caring for children of a family that paid her $950 a month. A Latina activist told Shackel that today's employees, like the miners of the past, are working just to survive. "While I have become friends with many in the community," Shackel writes, "I can't entirely agree with some of their social and political perspectives, I hope we can face this new form of racism and find a way to conquer it."

      Contact the writer:; 570-501-3587


      (c)2023 The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)

      Visit The Citizens' Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) at

      Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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