Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Three news organizations team up to examine surge in black lung disease among Appalachian coal miners

Black lung sufferer Ray Marcum, with
son Thomas. All three of his sons
have the disease. (Photo via AP)
Government laboratory results have confirmed what miners in small Appalachian towns and remote hollows already know to be true: Black lung is back. The disease's resurgence represents the the federal government's failure to deliver on its 40-year-old pledge to miners, but there is plenty of blame to go around, according to an investigation by the Center for Public IntegrityNational Public Radio and Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The multi-part package revealed results that are disheartening even to those already familiar with the work, life and politics of the Central Appalachian coalfield. The report finds that the system set up "for monitoring dust levels is tailor-made for cheating, and mining companies haven’t been shy about doing so. Meanwhile, regulators often have neglected to enforce even these porous rules. Again and again, attempts at reform have failed."

The in-depth series looks at the failure of institutions, governmental agencies and mining companies to protect the miner, and some miners' own shortcomings. It quotes doctors who believed that, decades after the disease was first detected, it would have no longer exist because of tighter controls and safer standards. Howard Berkes of NPR and Chris Hamby of CPI talked to miners who must endure a tortuous regimen to breathe and feel betrayed by a system that demonstrated little proof that it wished to protect them from what it knew to be dangerous.

CPI's analysis of data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration "found that miners have been breathing too much dust for years, but MSHA has issued relatively few violations and routinely allowed companies extra time to fix problems. MSHA chief Joe Main issued a statement in response to the findings: 'The current rules have been in effect for decades, do not adequately protect miners from disease and are in need of reform. That is why MSHA has proposed several changes to overhaul the current standards and reduce miners' exposure to unhealthy dust.' Similar attempts at reform have died twice before."

In the mid-1990s, medical experts began noticing an increase in black-lung diagnoses, including among younger miners and a more rapid progression to severe stages of sickness. The trend is most acute in a triangular region of Appalachia that includes Eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia. "Since [federal regulators] started protecting us ... 70,000 of us have died," says Mark McCowan, a 47-year-old former coal miner from Pounding Mill, Va., who worked 21 years underground. McCowan suffers from progressive massive fibrosis, the worst stage of the disease, and says, "I don't feel very protected."

The National Mining Association, the main trade group representing mining companies, disputes some of the government's data and the analysis, but agrees that black lung’s resurgence is a problem in need of attention. To the association, however, it is primarily a regional phenomenon of Central Appalachia — one that doesn’t justify new national rules.

There are theories about why the disease has returned, but no definitive answers. One likely explanation: Miners are breathing a more potent mix of dust. When the rock above and below a coal seam is ground up, it releases silica, which is more harmful to the lungs than coal dust and can cause accelerate the disease process. That's one reason surface miners are at risk as well as underground miners. As thicker coal seams have been mined out, companies are mining thinner seams, so there is more silica exposure per ton of coal produced. At the same time, the price of coal and advances in mining technology mean that some surface mines excavate almost 20 times as much rock and dirt as coal. (Read more)

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