During the Great Depression, thousands of men found jobs digging the Hawks Nest Tunnel in West Virginia. About three-quarters of them were African-Americans.
“To these men, going to West Virginia was like going to heaven – a new land, a new promised land – and when they got here, they found that they had ended up in a hellhole,” an amateur historian from the area told NPR recently.
The three-mile tunnel was a project of the Union Carbide and Carbon Corp. According to company documents, 80 percent of those men got sick, died or simply walked off the job after only six months.
It was a tough job, made tougher by punitive policies. In 1936, African-American workers testified about the project before Congress. On a workday, the men emerged from the tunnel covered in silica dust, which was kicked up by the process of drilling through sandstone. The dust was so thick, one worker said later, you could practically chew it.
The black workers testified that they were denied even 30-minute breaks to get some clean air. Supervisors allegedly rousted sick workers from bed at gunpoint.
It’s hard to know for certain how many men died during the 18-month project. Congressional testimony from the time indicates that some 300 people died of silicosis, a deadly disease caused by exposure to silica dust. That’s likely an underestimate. Local doctors often misattributed workers’ deaths to pneumonia or what they called “tunnelitis.”
African-American workers were sometimes buried in mass graves or unmarked graves, usually in slave cemeteries. Sometimes no one bothered to notify their families.
A University of Connecticut professor who wrote a book about the Hawks Nest Tunnel estimates that at least 764 workers died, most probably of silicosis.
A congressional committee concluded that the Hawks Nest Tunnel had been built with “grave and inhuman disregard for all consideration for the health, lives, and future of the employees.”
It took no direct action. However, that same year Congress passed a new law mandating that workers be provided with respirators when working in dusty conditions.
Over 500 lawsuits were filed against Union Carbide and another company involved. Union Carbide attempted to defend itself by claiming that few if any death certificates pointed to silicosis as the cause of death. Many cases, however, were settled out of court.
Silica dust has long been known to cause silicosis and other serious conditions. In many ways, the diseases caused by silica are similar to the non-malignant diseases caused by asbestos. Yet today, we still see deadly silica exposure occurring. It happens in mining.
It may be found in talcum powder, which is used by consumers worldwide. If you fear harm has occurred, talk with a knowledgeable attorney about your rights and options for holding those responsible accountable.