Environment

Emma Burchett lives in Floyd County, in Eastern Kentucky. She’s not a coal miner; she has never worked in or around a coal mine. But late last year, the 45-year-old Burchett was diagnosed with anthracosis, which is a mild form of black lung disease.

Burchett has black lung disease because she lives in close proximity to a coal processing plant, alleges a lawsuit filed last week in circuit court against the plant.

“I’ve been practicing law in the mountains for 34 years, and as best I can tell, this is the first human being who has the right to go in front of a jury and say, ‘I’ve got black lung and cannot seek compensation,’” said attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who is handling Burchett’s case. Numerous coal miners have contracted black lung, of course—and the disease has surged in recent years—but those coal miners have to negotiate the complicated and often futile process of workers’ compensation.

John Harris of Prater Creek Coal didn’t return requests for comment.

Burchett’s case argues that the plant in Ivel, Kentucky—operated by Prater Creek Coal—sent coal dust onto her property, causing damage. But it also alleges assault and battery from the coal dust: that the dust “basically migrated from the preparation plant and attacked and hit her and became wedged in her lungs,” Pillersdorf said.

And the term “anthracosis” was designed to describe the presence of anthracite coal dust in the lungs. “When you see that biopsy, by definition, it means you’ve inhaled coal dust to such an extent that you’ve damaged your lungs,” Pillersdorf said. “If you’re in a place where there is no coal, you can’t get this diagnosis.”

If Burchett ultimately prevails in the case, this could set up numerous lawsuits around Appalachia if other non-coal miners are found to have black lung disease. Residents near coal processing plants, coal silos and coal mines have complained for years about coal dust and pollution, but have had limited luck in proving damages.