July 9, 2012 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 2Comment

If it wasn’t such a terrible disgrace, an example of our malfunctioning regulatory system, and a public health failure, I’d have to pinch myself that three of my favorite investigative reporters have worked together to expose it.  Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston (WV) Gazette, Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity (and rising star Chris Hamby) and Howard Berkes of National Public Radio (NPR) have teamed up to write about black lung disease among U.S. coal miners.   The first of their stories were reported yesterday in the Gazette and at Hard Labor, the Center for Public Integrity’s series on health, safety and economic threats to U.S. workers.  The NPR pieces will air tonight (July 9, 2012) on “All Things Considered” and tomorrow’s “Morning Edition.”

Hamby’s piece “Black lung surges back in coal country” profiles old-timer Ray Marcum of eastern Kentucky, and his three sons ages 51-59 who all have black lung disease.  The miners explain how mine operators cheat the system that is supposed to monitor respirable dust levels.  These federal mine safety requirements should lead to practices to reduce exposure so that miners’ health is protected, but miners themselves felt pressure to participate in the deception.   Hamby describes why the current federal safety rules are ineffective, including the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) propensity to give mine operators weeks and even months to address serious dust-control problems.

In “Dust reforms stalled by years of inaction,” Ken Ward Jr. complements Hamby’s story by elaborating on efforts by MSHA during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton Administrations to institute major regulatory changes to control miners’ exposure to respirable coal dust and prevent coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.  He describes roadblocks and detours created by both industry and labor groups to stave off new regulations by MSHA.  Those “wins” for the interest groups were major losses for coal miners with real negative consequences for their health.  The United Mine Workers’ opposition to a comprehensive rule that could have been adopted at the end of the Clinton Administration is a classic example of advocates’ insistence on the perfect being the enemy of the good.

The Charleston (WV) Gazette reporter also reminds us what we learned about black lung disease from the 29 men who were killed in April 2010 in the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine:  of the 24 coal miners with sufficient lung tissue for analysis, 71 percent of them had black lung disease.  This included six men younger than age 50 and several individuals who worker almost exclusively at UBB.  Ward’s story “Miners say UBB mine cheated on dust sampling,” relies on sworn testimony from coal miners who were interviewed as part of the disaster investigation.  They corroborate the practices described in Hamby’s interview with the Kentucky coal miners on ways that mine operators fabricate dust samples to avoid having (possibly) to correct dust problems.

On the Hard Labor site, NPR photographer David Deal captures in black and white the compassion and humility of Dr. Donald Rasmussen, 84.  Beginning in the 1960’s, Dr. Rasmussen took on coal companies, company doctors and some in mainstream medicine who insisted breathing coal dust was not harmful to health. (In fact some argued it had a protective effect.)  Dr. Rasmussen continues to practice medicine at a clinic in Beckley, WV.  He told Chris Hamby:

“In 1969, I publicly proclaimed that the disease would go away before we learned more about it.”

Rasmussen likely attributing his prediction about black lungs’ extinction to the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 which mandated an end to the disease.

“I was dead wrong,” Rasmussen remarked.

The Obama Administration’s Labor Department proposed a new regulation in October 2010 to address the health hazards associated with exposure to respirable coal dust.  Public hearings were conducted on the proposal in December 2010 through February 2011, and the public comment period closed more than one year ago.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has the authority to issue a regulation to address the factors that cause black lung.  The difficult work analyzing the public comments should be done by now.   It’s time to eliminate this disease once and for all for the next generation of coal miners.  I hope this week’s reporting by the Charleston Gazette, Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio compel her to use her authority do so.



2 thoughts on “Investigative reporters team up to expose national disgrace: US coal miners still get black lung

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