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 According to public health experts and industry experts, it’s a combination of outdated coal dust regulations and miners working longer hours.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.