Written by: Dan Radmacher
July 13, 2012
The Center for Public Integrity, NPR and The Charleston Gazette combined their talents to put together an incredibly important series about the resurgence of a deadly disease: black lung.
Black lung, which steals the breath and eventually the lives of coal miners exposed to excessive coal dust, should have been eradicated decades ago. Congress passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1969 requiring dust levels to be monitored and kept at safe levels.
For decades, that promise has gone unfulfilled. According to NPR’s Howard Berkes, 70,000 coal miners have died from black lung since 1970. Another 60,000 are currently receiving black lung benefits.
For all the talk by politicians and the coal industry’s vast PR machine about the so-called “war on coal,” news such as this gets scant attention.
“If [Appalachian politicians] care so much about coal miners, why haven’t any of them stood up to give a speech saying this is outrageous that coal miners are dying from black lung disease?” asked Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. in an interview with West Virginia Public Radio’s Beth Voorhees. “It might be time to ask those politicians about this war on coal miners, which is essentially what’s happening with black lung disease.”
The 1969 law tasked the Mine Safety and Health Administration with ensuring “to the greatest extent possible, that working conditions in each underground coal mine are sufficiently free of respirable dust to permit each miner the opportunity to work underground during the period of his entire life without incurring any disability from pneumoconiosis or any other occupation-related disease during or at the end of such period.”
But coal companies did their own sampling. Many cheated, putting sampling apparatus in idled portions of mines where dust was low, or simply falsifying results. Efforts to strengthen enforcement have been tied up in rule making disputes and court battles for years.
The industry blocked efforts in the Clinton administration to strengthen monitoring, then the United Mine Workers protested a Bush-administration effort, which miners worried was an attempt to weaken coal-dust limits.
In a story by Ward, former MSHA Director Davitt McAteer said these aborted efforts demonstrated the serious flaws in our political system. ”Even if you recognize a very serious and obvious worker health problem, the system just can’t get anything done about it,” McAteer said.
Aside from the terrible human toll, there is also a huge financial cost. The industry and federal government have paid out more than $45 billion in black lung benefits since 1970. Congress has had to put billions of dollars into the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund in order to keep it solvent.
Once more, it becomes clear that there’s an awful high price to pay for cheap coal.