11 Nov 2014: Report

A Scourge for Coal Miners
Stages a Brutal Comeback

Black lung — a debilitating disease caused by inhaling coal dust — was supposed to be wiped out by a landmark 1969 U.S. mine safety law. But a recent study shows that the worst form of the disease now affects a larger share of Appalachian coal miners than at any time since the early 1970s.

by ken ward jr.

In August, when former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney visited West Virginia to campaign for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Shelley Moore Capito, the Democrat in the race was quick to remind voters what Romney had said a decade earlier about the coal industry.

“I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant — that plant kills people,” Romney had said in 2003, standing outside a Massachusetts coal-fired power plant that was facing new environmental controls. The Democratic candidate’s campaign jumped on this, criticizing Capito for aligning herself with “someone who believes coal ‘kills people’” — a deeply unpopular sentiment in a state where coal has long been king.

The irony, of course, is that coal does kill people, most notably the workers who toil to mine it, and whose union — the United Mine Workers — would eventually endorse the Democrat in the West Virginia Senate contest.

View Gallery
Black Lung

Photo by William F. Campbell/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Former miner Albert Perry, debilitated by black lung and dependent on an oxygen machine.
Politicians and media pundits often conveniently forget that fact when they’re chattering away about the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules on coal-fired power plants or the latest study showing climate change’s impact on sea level rise.

Major mining disasters get a lot attention, especially if they involve heroic rescue efforts, with worried families gathered at a local church and quick-hit stories about long lists of safety violations and inadequate enforcement.

But most coal miners die alone, one at a time, either in roof falls or equipment accidents or — incredibly in this day and age — from black lung, a deadly but preventable disease that most Americans probably think is a thing of the past. Coal-mining disasters get historic markers. Black lung deaths just get headstones.

Just weeks after Romney’s Capito campaign appearance, yet another in a long line of studies showed conclusively that not only is black lung back, but that the worst form of the disease now affects a larger share of Appalachian coal miners than at any time since the early 1970s, shortly after a federal law meant to end the disease was passed.

Experts at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported that, by 2012, the rate of severe black lung had reached 3.2 percent of workers in the Central Appalachian coalfields of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. That’s a nearly tenfold increase over the disease prevalence 15 years earlier — a shocking statistic. In a brief report published in the September 15 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, NIOSH researchers said, “Each of these cases is a tragedy and represents a failure among all those responsible for preventing this severe disease.”

Black lung is caused by inhaling coal dust. The accumulation of dust particles in the lungs makes it hard to breathe. As the disease progresses, victims develop a cough or shortness of breath.

“Living with black lung is thinking about every breath you take,” former miner Robert Bailey Jr. told a congressional committee earlier this year.

‘Living with black lung is thinking about every breath you take,' says a former miner.
“Breathing is something most people take for granted," Bailey said. "It comes as easy as we walk, do our daily jobs, come and go. But with this disease... I struggle to breathe whether I am simply walking up my slight incline of a yard or grocery shopping or trying to participate in ‘Operation Compassion’ at our church when we give out food.”

The new study focused on progressive massive fibrosis, an advanced, debilitating and lethal form of black lung with few treatment options and no cure.

Fifteen years ago, the rate of PMF had dropped to about 0.08 percent among all miners participating in a government monitoring program and 0.33 percent among active underground miners with at least 15 years of work experience. Since then, the national prevalence of PMF has increased dramatically and the rate of increase in Appalachia has “been especially pronounced,” the researchers reported.

“Excessive inhalation of coal mine dust is the sole cause of PMF in working coal miners, so this increase can only be the result of overexposures and/or increased toxicity stemming from changes in dust composition,” the NIOSH researchers wrote.

To people who live in the coalfields of Appalachia — and to the small community of scientists, labor activists, lawyers and media who follow mine safety and health matters — this latest report was no surprise. But amid the constant drone of “war on coal” attacks on the Obama administration’s climate change initiatives, the NIOSH study got relatively little attention from the media — and hardly any from elected officials or candidates.

In some ways, it’s understandable. In 1969, when it passed landmark safety legislation, Congress made eliminating black lung, formally known as coal
When it passed mine safety legislation in 1969, Congress made eliminating black lung a national goal.
workers pneumoconiosis, a national goal. The law required mine operators to design better underground ventilation systems, to provide miners fresh air, and to flush deadly dust out of mine tunnels. Mining machines were equipped with dust-control water sprays. Regular monitoring was required, with enforcement actions and monetary fines for exceeding dust limits.

For two decades, the prevalence of black lung dropped continuously — from 6.5 percent in the 1970s, to 2.5 percent in the 1980s and 2.1 percent in the 1990s. But then the trend reversed, with rates climbing to 3.2 percent in the 2000s.

No one knows for sure exactly what is causing black lung’s resurgence. But it’s likely that, with the thicker coal seams mined out in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, operators are going after thinner seams with faster-moving machines that churn out more dust from silica-laced rock that surrounds the coal.

View Gallery
Black Lung

Photo by Jack Corn/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
A West Virginia miner has his lung capacity tested in 1974.
These trends coincide with an ongoing contraction of the Central Appalachian region’s coal industry, which is facing heavy competition from low-cost natural gas and other mining basins in Wyoming and Illinois. Since 2011, West Virginia alone has lost 4,000 coal-mining jobs, dropping the number of working miners to less than 20,000. Last year, Kentucky reported a little more than 12,000 coal jobs, the lowest number since state officials started counting in 1927. Such challenging conditions, health and safety experts say, raise the risk of industry cutting corners on black lung protection.

During my 23 years at The Charleston Gazette, where I have largely focused on the coal industry, one issue I regret not having covered nearly enough is black lung. Since 1968, black lung has caused or contributed to more than 75,000 coal miner deaths in the U.S. But like the climate change story, black lung deaths don’t come with one big dramatic event that journalists can jump on and cover. It’s a tougher story than that — although, of course, that’s no excuse.

Some coalfield reporters have done much better than I have in exploring this issue. In a landmark 1998 series, for example, the Courier-Journal in Louisville explained clearly how widespread cheating by mine operators on dust samples had helped ensure the law fell far short of its goal. A decade later, in 2007, the Courier-Journal was among the few media outlets with strong and detailed reporting on the science emerging that showed a troubling resurgence in black lung in Appalachia.

More recently, there are signs that black lung’s profile is increasing, bringing new attention – and perhaps even much-needed reform — to the
Black lung has not been turned into the priority political issue that the underlying crisis demands.
problem. In 2012, I was fortunate to be asked to contribute to a joint black lung investigation by NPR News and the Center for Public Integrity. NPR’s Howard Berkes and then-CPI staffer Chris Hamby dug deep into the reemergence of black-lung as a growing threat to miners. They took to a national audience the stories of coal miners who suffered from the disease and exposed a combination of industry cheating and regulatory failures that “represents a failure to deliver on a 40-year-old pledge to miners.”

For that NPR-CPI package, I wrote a piece about how reform of the black lung system has failed over a long history during administrations and congresses controlled by both political parties. For more than a quarter-century, efforts to end black lung have hit various brick walls, built by opponents from one side or another. Industry lobbyists would object that tougher dust limits were too stringent, and labor leaders that new monitoring procedures too weak. Ultimately, miners were left with the same system that experts agreed hadn’t worked for decades.

In the last couple of years, some things have changed. In April, the Obama administration finally issued long-awaited reforms of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s dust-control rules. But the final rule comes 3½ years after MSHA’s initial proposal, and it backed off the original plan to slash the legal dust limit in half, from 2.0 milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air to 1.0 milligrams per cubic meter. Public health experts, along with a U.S. Labor Department advisory panel and NIOSH, had been recommending the lower number since the mid-1990s. Yet after intense opposition from the mining industry and congressional Republicans, the final rule sets the dust limit at 1.5 milligrams per cubic meter. Advocates of the lower 1.0-milligram standard publicly accepted MSHA’s move, saying it appeared to be the best compromise that could be achieved in the face of industry opposition. Yet even that standard is facing a legal challenge by coal operators.


Facing Tough Market at Home,
US Coal Giant Pushes Overseas

Peabody Energy coal excavating
With prospects in the U.S. increasingly uncertain, Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, is expanding its operations abroad. But that strategy could carry significant risks, as coal-consuming powerhouses like China are working to reduce their dependence on the fossil fuel.
At the same time, though, another aspect of black lung has come under increasing scrutiny, largely because of the journalistic efforts of Chris Hamby. Earlier this year, Hamby, now with BuzzFeed, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of how coal company lawyers and doctors manipulate the legal system to prevent disabled coal miners from receiving promised benefits. Those disclosures prompted a push by U.S. Senator. Bob Casey Jr., of Pennsylvania, for federal legislation to stop the industry’s maneuvers and make it easier for miners suffering from black lung to obtain their benefits.

Still, except for some back-and-forth over misleading campaign ads, black lung has not been turned into the priority political issue that the underlying crisis demands. After Casey announced his plans for legislation, a colleague and I asked GOP candidate Capito and her Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, if they would support the bill if they were elected to the U.S. Senate. Tennant quickly said she would. But Capito, now the Senator-elect, has yet to answer us.

POSTED ON 11 Nov 2014 IN Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Sustainability North America 


It is something more than ironic to read Ken Ward's valuable report in the wake of this morning's (11/11/14) piece in the NYT concerning the recently elected Republican majority's efforts to turn back President Obama's "war on coal," and their plans to push through the Keystone pipeline.

With Mitch McConnell from Kentucky poised to take over the Senate leadership, we read a statement of his, “I fully intend to do everything I can do to fight these onerous E.P.A. regulations.” One can only hope such views will grow increasingly untenable for the Republicans, and that Democrats will find in themselves the courage to speak out more forcefully for the ecological integrity of our nation.

Meanwhile, it is hardworking folks, from the coal mines of Appalachia and agricultural communities of the Great Plains, to the fishing grounds of southeast Alaska and the North Slope, who bear the brunt of abuses from those powers whose only interest is to maximize efficiencies to maximize their profits.

Mr. Ward's expose is a trenchant case study capturing the complicities and machinations leading to the very real human misery resulting from our collective disregard for our lands and waters.
Posted by Tim Hogan on 11 Nov 2014

I have been doing what I can to spread the word that their are better forms of fuel than coal. http://www.climateoutcome.kiwi.nz/blog/how-cheap-is-coal-as-a-fuel
Posted by Bob Bingham on 19 Nov 2014

I have just read a novel by John Grisham entitled
'Gray Mountain'. Shocked to think this was based on
a real situation, and reading various blogs from
America, I realise the subject matter may not be far
from the truth.
Absolutely shocking!
Posted by GORDON REED on 01 Sep 2015


Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Email address 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.

ken ward jr.ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ken Ward Jr. is a reporter for The Charleston Gazette, West Virginia's largest newspaper. A native of Mineral County, West Virginia, Ward has received numerous awards for his coverage of mining, pulp mills, logging, and medical waste incinerators. He is a three-time winner of the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Edward Jr. Meeman Award for Environmental Reporting and in 2000 received the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists. Ward runs the Gazette's Coal Tattoo blog, which covers local and national debates over the coal industry.



In Fukushima, A Bitter Legacy
Of Radiation, Trauma and Fear

Five years after the nuclear power plant meltdown, a journey through the Fukushima evacuation zone reveals some high levels of radiation and an overriding sense of fear. For many, the psychological damage is far more profound than the health effects.

For China’s Polluted Megacities,
A Focus on Slashing Emissions

The booming industrial center of Shenzhen is a showcase for Chinese efforts to cut CO2 emissions and make the nation's burgeoning cities more livable. But it remains to be seen whether China's runaway industrial development can give way to a low-carbon future.

Why We Need a Carbon Tax,
And Why It Won’t Be Enough

Putting a price on carbon is an idea whose time has come, with even Big Oil signaling it may drop its long-standing opposition to a carbon tax. But the question is, has it come too late?

Clinton vs. Trump: A Sharp Divide
Over Energy and the Environment


Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge
Confronts Its Radioactive Past

The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.


MORE IN Reports

High Stakes on the High Seas:
A Call for International Reserves

by nicola jones
Marine protected areas in national waters have proven successful in helping depleted fish stocks to recover. Now, there is growing momentum for the creation of extensive reserves on the high seas as a way of reversing decades of rampant overfishing.

For China’s Polluted Megacities,
A Focus on Slashing Emissions

by mike ives
The booming industrial center of Shenzhen is a showcase for Chinese efforts to cut CO2 emissions and make the nation's burgeoning cities more livable. But it remains to be seen whether China's runaway industrial development can give way to a low-carbon future.

Rocky Flats: A Wildlife Refuge
Confronts Its Radioactive Past

by fred pearce
The Rocky Flats Plant outside Denver was a key U.S. nuclear facility during the Cold War. Now, following a $7 billion cleanup, the government is preparing to open a wildlife refuge on the site to the public, amid warnings from some scientists that residual plutonium may still pose serious health risks.

Pressure Mounts to Reform Our
Throwaway Clothing Culture

by marc gunther
Americans dispose of about 12.8 million tons of textiles annually — 80 pounds for each man, woman, and child. In the U.S. and around the world, a growing number of environmentalists and clothing industry executives say it’s time to end the wasteful clothing culture and begin making new apparel out of old items on a large scale.

The New Green Grid: Utilities
Deploy ‘Virtual Power Plants’

by maria gallucci
By linking together networks of energy-efficient buildings, solar installations, and batteries, a growing number of companies in the U.S. and Europe are helping utilities reduce energy demand at peak hours and supply targeted areas with renewably generated electricity.

Sticker Shock: The Soaring Costs
Of Germany’s Nuclear Shutdown

by joel stonington
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2011 decision to rapidly phase out the country’s 17 nuclear power reactors has left the government and utilities with a massive challenge: How to clean up and store large amounts of nuclear waste and other radioactive material.

How to Restore an Urban River?
Los Angeles Looks to Find Out

by jim robbins
Officials are moving ahead with a major revitalization of the Los Angeles River – removing miles of concrete along its banks and re-greening areas now covered with pavement. But the project raises an intriguing question: Just how much of an urban river can be returned to nature?

How Growing Sea Plants Can
Help Slow Ocean Acidification

by nicola jones
Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine life.

Vanishing Act: What’s Causing Sharp
Decline in Insects and Why It Matters

by christian schwägerl
Insect populations are declining dramatically in many parts of the world, recent studies show. Researchers say various factors, from monoculture farming to habitat loss, are to blame for the plight of insects, which are essential to agriculture and ecosystems.

For India’s Captive Leopards,
A Life Sentence Behind Bars

by richard conniff
As sightings of leopards in populated areas increase, Indian authorities are trapping the animals and keeping them in captivity — often in small cages without adequate food or veterinary care. The real solution, wildlife advocates say, is to educate the public on how to coexist with the big cats.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

Tribal people and ranchers join together to stop a project that would haul coal across their Montana land.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.


An aerial view of why Europe’s per capita carbon emissions are less than 50 percent of those in the U.S.
View the photos.

e360 VIDEO

Ugandan scientists monitor the impact of climate change on one of Africa’s most diverse forests and its extraordinary wildlife.
Learn more.

e360 VIDEO

Food waste
An e360 video series looks at the staggering amount of food wasted in the U.S. – a problem with major human and environmental costs.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.