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Black Lung Is Back: Easily Cheated Regulations and Little Oversight Lead to Severe Cases in Young Miners

Researchers are struggling to explain why black lung is striking younger and younger miners and robbing them of their breath faster and faster.

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History may be repeating itself. MSHA proposed a rule in 2010 that would cut the overall limit for dust in half and require companies to use continuous personal dust monitors, which would provide real-time measurements. The current pumps have to be sent to a lab, where analysis can take weeks.

Under the rule, the samples would be weighted to account for shifts longer than eight hours, and companies could be cited for a single sample over the limit — rather than an average of five — or a weekly accumulation of exposure above a certain limit. The rule would also expand the free X-ray monitoring program to include lung function tests and medical assessments.

Still, the rule leaves much of the sampling in the hands of the coal companies themselves. Asked why, Main said, “It’s an enormous task for the government to take on.”

Even industry favors MSHA’s taking over all compliance sampling. “We need to get to a point where we remove this cloud of controversy and instill in the minds of everyone that the samples are accurate,” the National Mining Association’s Watzman said.

There isn’t much in the rule that the association supports, however. The real-time dust monitors — a centerpiece of the proposal — are still not accurate enough to be the basis of citations, Watzman argued. Dennis O’Dell, safety director for the United Mine Workers of America, said the few problems with the monitors are “little things that can be tweaked.” The union favors the proposed rule, though it would like to see portions of it changed.

All of this may be moot. A presidential election is approaching, and many fear a change in administrations could mean what it meant in the early 1980s and the early 2000s: the death of reform.

‘I never said nothing’

In coal country, weakness is a sin. Mining is just about the only career choice, and one generation often follows another underground.

Convincing a miner to go to a clinic, get an X-ray or file a claim for benefits can be a challenge. “They're not going to come and complain about how they feel, just because that's part of our culture,” said Debbie Wills, sitting in the clinic in tiny Cedar Grove, W.Va., where she helps miners get evaluated and file for black lung benefits.

At the same time, fear is almost as deeply rooted. Many miners don’t want their employers to know they have signs of black lung — or even that they’ve been X-rayed. Anita Wolfe, who runs NIOSH’s surveillance program and is often out with the RV that screens miners, said she has seen men approaching on foot from miles away because they didn’t want anyone to see their cars parked nearby.

Thanks to a rule MSHA issued in 1980, a miner whose X-ray shows signs of black lung receives a letter that requires his employer to transfer him to a less dusty job and pay him the same as before. The miner alone sees the letter, and he can use it whenever he wants.

Only about 30 percent of the nearly 3,000 letters issued to miners since 1980 have been used, according to MSHA data provided to the Center and NPR.

Sometimes miners avoid screening because they just don’t want to know. A diagnosis of black lung would likely mean having to leave the mines — the best-paying job around and the only way they know to provide for their families. “It's very known throughout the coal community there's no cure for this,” Wills said. “They want to pretend like everything's OK until they just can't do it anymore.”

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