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Documentary details black lung disease

Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Shawn A. Hessinger, The Associated Press

COALDALE, Pa. -- It's a modern-day tragedy told through the eyes, emotions, culture and heritage of those who lived it.

Copyright 2003, wvia

That's how filmmaker Thomas M. Curra describes "A Dying Breath," a documentary on black lung disease shot largely in northern and eastern Schuylkill County.

"It's a story that's told by the people of northeastern Pennsylvania," said Curra, who produced the one-hour film in collaboration with WVIA-TV for the public television station's March pledge drive.

The 17 hours of digital video shot for the production include aerial and interior footage of the St. Nicholas Breaker, one of only two remaining breakers, which break up coal, in northeastern Pennsylvania.

There also are interviews with U.S. Rep. T. Timothy Holden, D-Pa., victims of the disease and administrators at St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital in Coaldale.

Today, the hospital is the only one in northeastern Pennsylvania to maintain a clinic specifically dedicated to the treatment of the disease.

Caused by silica dust inhaled by miners during their work, the disease's destructive effect was finally recognized with the 1969 federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which helped those suffering from the affliction to collect compensation.

In the 34 years since passage of the act, almost $4 billion in cash payments and medical benefits has been disbursed within the six-county area in northeastern Pennsylvania in which anthracite mining figured prominently.

But amendments to the bill in 1981 made qualifying for that compensation more difficult.

"The compensation was written into the laws of Pennsylvania but it was optional," said Joseph J. Machulsky, 88, of Shenandoah, a former chairman of the Shenandoah General Mine Board and a black lung sufferer who fought to make the compensation for black lung part of union contracts before the federal legislation was enacted.

"A miner would have to go to court to collect, and no miner could ever collect in court," said Machulsky, who is featured prominently in the film.

The documentary was made by Curra and director Greg T. Matkosky, the creative team behind the docudrama "Stories From The Mines," another recent film telling the story of the rise of the anthracite industry and organized labor within the region.

It was the positive feedback from the airing of that production that persuaded program executives at WVIA-TV to approach Curra and Matkosky about the new project.

"It's really a collaboration between WVIA and Tom and Greg," said Mark C. Thomas, vice president of television for WVIA, which aired the documentary recently.

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