Investigation: As Black Lung Cases Doubled In The Last Decade, The Coal Industry Fought New Health Protections

In the last ten years, as cases of black lung among American coal miners doubled — hitting “epidemic” scale — the coal industry and anti-regulatory politicians have fought to prevent federal agencies from creating new standards that would improve miner safety.

That’s according to an investigation from National Public Radio, The Center for Public Integrity, and the Charleston Gazette.

The reporters looked at health data and regulatory records, finding an alarming surge in cases of black lung in U.S. miners — even while opponents of regulation worked to stop any new laws designed to reduce the problem. NPR released part one of its investigation this morning:

Black lung experts and mine safety advocates have warned of the resurgence of the disease since 1995. New reporting by CPI and NPR reveals the extent to which federal regulators and the mining industry failed to protect coal miners in the intervening years.

An analysis of federal data by CPI and NPR also shows that the mining industry and federal regulators have known for more than two decades that coal miners were breathing excessive amounts of the coal mine dust that causes black lung. CPI and NPR also found that the system for controlling coal mine dust is plagued by weak regulations and inaccurate reporting that sometimes includes fraud.

“This is clearly a public health epidemic,” Laney says. “This is a rare disease that should not be occurring. It’s occurring at a high proportion of individuals who are being exposed.”

Rates of black lung have doubled nation-wide in the last decade. In Appalachia, cases of the most advanced form of black lung have increased four-fold since the 1980’s.

What is causing the rise in black lung? According to public health experts and industry experts, it’s a combination of outdated coal dust regulations and miners working longer hours.

The last time any major regulations were established was 1969. That year, Congress established the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which created a new coal mining regulatory agency and significantly tightened standards for coal dust in the air. Cases of black lung fell by 90 percent after the law was passed.

But over the coming decades, as miners started working far longer hours, the problem came back in a big way:

Rasmussen first started charting an increase in serious black lung cases about 15 years ago.

“We began to see the appearance of younger miners who had worked in the mines only since the dust suppression following the ’69 act that were showing up with complicated pneumoconiosis or progressive massive fibrosis,” he says.

Since 1970, NIOSH epidemiologists documented test results for 43 percent of the nation’s coal miners. In 1995, the tests began to indicate more and more black long, rapid disease progression and the unexpected occurrence among relatively young miners.

“From the patterns and from the severity, from the prevalence of the disease, this must be a situation in which the dust in many, many mines is simply not adequately controlled,” says Edward Petsonk, a pulmonologist at West Virginia University and a consultant for NIOSH. “There’s nothing else that could possibly cause this.”

But rather than protect sick miners from black lung  — a problem that has been growing steadily over the last 15 years — the coal industry and anti-regulation crusaders in Congress have prevented any new rules on coal dust from moving forward.

Ken Ward, a leading coal journalist who runs the blog Coal Tattoo, wrote a companion piece to the NPR/CPI investigation about the failure of regulators to help improve conditions for miners:

Over and over, that’s been the story of government efforts to improve the system intended to protect miners and end black lung. One proposal or another has died, been dropped or thrown out in court after one side or the other wasn’t satisfied with the details.

…At the same time, efforts by then-MSHA chief Davitt McAteer to focus on black lung — and many other issues — were diverted.

When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over the House of Representatives, among their government streamlining proposals was to eliminate MSHA [The Mine Safety and Health Administration]. Mine safety duties would be given instead to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, weakening the greater protections federal law gives to miners. McAteer and other top Labor Department officials spent years fighting the change. They eventually won, but the damage to their agenda — including black lung reforms — was significant.

“It was dramatic,” McAteer recalled. “You spent your time not at the task of improving mine safety and health, but defending yourself against what they were trying to do.”

The consequences have been deadly. As anti-regulatory politicians repeat their lines about “job killing” federal rules, rates of black lung have doubled — killing more than 70,000 miners since 1970.

Read these two investigations. They powerfully illustrate the real consequences of rolling back environmental and health regulations.

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was supposed to sharply cut exposure to coal mine dust. The act set a standard for coal dust exposure (2 milligrams per cubic meter of air), which was as little as 1/4 of the concentrations miners breathed at the time.

11 Responses to Investigation: As Black Lung Cases Doubled In The Last Decade, The Coal Industry Fought New Health Protections

  1. Peter Anderson says:

    Remembering the radical rights rather simple tactic that has won them so much influence — repetition, repetition, repetition, we need to reciprocate every time the context arises when they say “job-killing rules” to repeat louder, “people killing rule changes”.

  2. Iain says:

    An AHA moment just struck me. The GOP and Tea party have been spewing their BS for years about how the EPA and other regulations are killing jobs. Now I know why they fight…if the truth were exposed via the severe regulations required for Black Lung as an example, the issue for the GOP is not lack of jobs but employees willing to work…
    So, you’re just out of highschool, the mining industry needs blokes like you. Ignore those health issues, look at the money you will make. But if the info were public, the coal industry would be recruiting like the US Military…PLEASE PLEASE COME AND WORK FOR US!
    And of course, regulations have an effect on profits.

  3. Iain says:

    And the truth is coming to light. I read the other day how the 911 workers who suffer today with major health issues are being ignored. This fact was presented in Michael Moore’s “Sicko”. It’s good (and bad) that we are now hearing this in the mainstream. People need to stand up to the corporations and say STOP.

  4. Mark Shapiro says:

    I recently watched both “The Last Mountain” and “Gasland”. Unfortunately, TP’s Terms of Use make voicing my opinions about the extractive industries here difficult.

    Mining and drilling companies remove everything between them and their minerals as cheaply as possible.

    That includes human beings and their rights to life and property.

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    It sounds like something out of the 19th century, or a novel by Zola or Dickens. Unfortunately the Right’s innate hatred of other human beings is eternal.

  6. Mark Shapiro says:

    Watch “The Last Mountain”. Watch “Gasland”. (Both are on Netflix instant watch.)

    Consider the nature of the extractive industries.

  7. calvin smith says:

    I would have liked to see some evidence regarding the proposition that coal miners are working far longer hours now than before. If the initial passage of the laws in 1969 reduced the incidence of black lung by 90% as asserted, then to my way of thinking the only way that a resurgence could have have come about is through a failure on the part of the Federal regulators to enforce existing law. Following this line of thought the solution would be to ensure that existing laws were enforced rather than enacting new laws.

  8. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    You tried to tell me this tweny years ago, but I did not believe you. Time after time you have been proven correct, so many of your predictions have come to pass.

    Hatred is the right word. Simple greed does not explain their actions, for the risk to profits is huge.

  9. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    I suspect you are correct. A whole raft of new but unenforced laws will achieve little.

    I have no evidence, but have heard that some companies get prior warning of inspections.

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In capitalist societies regulatory agencies are always and everywhere captured by the capitalist pathocrats they are meant to police. There is an open ‘revolving-door’ between Big Pharma and the FDA, the banksters flit from the Federal Reserve and IMF back to Goldman Sachs et al, and the Treasury Department, the European Central Bank and various ‘technocratic’ regimes in Europe are hotbeds of Goldman Sachs alumni. Like the CIA you never really ‘retire’ from the bankster brotherhood. These are the real administrators of the captured state, and Obama and his ilk are simply the court jesters, following orders and bringing tragi-comic relief.

  11. L. Luscher says:

    Interesting but it’s those coal producing red states like Montana, West Virginia, Wyoming, Kentucky will go all out to elect Romney. While these very citizens are dying – over 70,000 since 1970, they will try to elect a man who will appeal the health care law that could save their very own lies and who will take apart any regulations meant to protect them. What is it that make people vote against their very own self interest?