Pallavi Podapati

Board Member Digs Into Coal Miner Health Policies

By Julia Lindsay

You just try to stop Pallavi Podapati. Activist and Appalachian Voices Board member, Pallavi talks a thousand words a minute, channeling her voracious drive for social justice through the phone.

Pallavi, now in her twenties, grew up in Hazard, Ky. Her cardiologist father inspired her interest in public health, which blossomed into a focus on the 20th century demands from Appalachian coal miners for pneumoconiosis compensation. Also known as black lung, the fatal disease is caused by exposure to coal mine dust.

While a student at the University of Pennsylvania, she researched American policies regarding black lung and mining accidents. As a sophomore, she met with federal legislators and agencies to demand strong public health and environmental protections from mining during The Alliance for Appalachia’s annual Week In Washington, which she attended with fellow members of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. She met staff from Appalachian Voices during the event, and our work for clean water piqued her interest. The following summer, she joined our team as an intern, returning to Week In Washington and helping with our Appalachian Water Watch Project.

The level of involvement with the water watch program excited her. “I remember sitting there as an intern and thinking ‘we are doing things that regulatory agencies should be doing,’” Pallavi says. The team created a citizen water monitoring project in central Appalachia to work with local residents to identify water pollution and hold coal companies accountable for the damage.

A true activist, her belief in the power of a community when it works together pervades her words. She’s empowering. “There’s a clock on the wall,” she warns, “we need to come together now; we need to be a little more courageous.”

Pallavi’s passion extends beyond Appalachia. Her next endeavor will take her to Wales, for a year to do research for Swansea University’s Disability and Industrial Society project. She will conduct a historical analysis of mining-related health policies. America’s policies fall on the lower end of the bell curve, Pallavi says, and she plans to investigate “why black lung was recognized as a disease in the 1930’s in the U.K., but it wasn’t until 1969 that the U.S recognized it as an occupational illness.” Pallavi hopes to apply what she learns abroad to policies in the states when she returns.

“This is a larger, global conversation,” she adds, noting that the coal industry has deep pockets and political power. The core of her work focuses on the prevention of suffering by leveling the scales between the coal industry and the common man, wherever that may be.

Pallavi joined the Appalachian Voices Board of Directors in 2014. The position has nourished her hunger for involvement. “I get to hear about everything rather than one project, and I love that,” she says.

Her current role is another step in a tradition of service — while in college, she played a significant role in a slew of organizations including the Civic House Associates Coalition and Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention. Without a doubt, Pallavi will continue to challenge the status quo wherever she is.