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.

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.

Black Lung
Former miner Albert Perry, debilitated by black lung and dependent on an oxygen machine. PHOTO BY WILLIAM F. CAMPBELL/THE LIFE IMAGES COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

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.

“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.

‘Living with black lung is thinking about every breath you take,’ says a former miner.

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 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.

When it passed mine safety legislation in 1969, Congress made eliminating black lung a national goal.

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.

Black Lung
A West Virginia miner has his lung capacity tested in 1974. PHOTO BY JACK CORN/U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES AND RECORDS ADMINISTRATION

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 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.”

Black lung has not been turned into the priority political issue that the underlying crisis demands.

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.

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.