Illness and ash: Documentary of dying West Virginia towns gets day on Capitol Hill

The documentary combines data visualization, interactive navigation and video into its online presentation of the documentary as a whole. (Courtesy \'\'Hollow\'\' documentary)

WASHINGTON – It was meant to start a dialogue about the growing issues facing McDowell County, West Virginia — an area once with a population of 100,000 that is now steeped in poverty.

A new interactive documentary, funded through a Kickstarter campaign, profiles the stories of 30 residents and the ups and downs of their daily lives to tell a larger story of the economic trouble that has befallen the now dilapidated community.

Now, this labor of love, produced and created online by a group of young journalists and documentarians, is getting its day on Capitol Hill.

“I think we’re losing a lot of pride in our state,” says filmmaker Elaine Sheldon.

She set out to change the stigma of southeastern West Virginia and, ultimately, the track McDowell County is on with each of its 10 towns steadily losing population and jobs.

“There’s infrastructure issues. There’s housing issues. There’s education issues. But, overall, there’s just sort of a leadership issue,” Sheldon says.

“In all of these problems you see, a lot of them could be solved by someone with new ideas in leadership.”

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., sponsored a screening Tuesday night of “Hollow” at the Capitol Visitor Center to further the discussion.

“When it falls apart, it all falls down and collapses. Education is the most glaring thing that falls down first. There’s a reason for that and you’ve got to rebuild it from the ground up again,” he says.

West Virginia, Still Home from Hollow Interactive on Vimeo.

The screening comes to the Hill as senators are hearing from a retired coal miner suffering from black lung disease, urging Congress to help clear the backlog of claims of fellow miners with the same prognosis.

The fall of the coal mining industry and the heap of health problems it left behind is a chapter of “Hollow” producers’ coverage aptly named, “When Coal was King.”

“I look to y’all to help us to get that which we need,” Robert Bailey of Princeton, West Virginia, says.

“I would like to see that Congress step in and do make some changes to help process these claims [that are taking too long.”

Black lung is an irreversible and potentially deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust, where the dust particles accumulate in the lungs. According to the Labor Department, more than 76,000 miners have died at least in part because of the disease since 1968.

Bailey, who worked as a coal miner for more than 36 years, says it took him about four years to win black lung benefits, but that he’s still trying to get insurance to cover the cost of a lung transplant.

There is currently a backlog of roughly 14,000 black lung cases pending before Labor Department’s Office of Administrative Law judges, according to testimony at Tuesday’s hearing.

Sen. Robert Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who chaired the hearing, notes that has been a spike of black lung cases in recent years. Casey and five other members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama in February, urging him to make the elimination of the backlog a priority in his budget proposal.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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