Black Lung Kills 1,000 Coal Miners Annually, But Does Anyone Care?

Jeff Biggers Nov 13, 2010

Whenever policy wonks or bureaucrats or business folk in temperature-controlled (coal-fired generated) offices admonish me to accept the reality of dirty coal in our lives, I remind them of this fact:

Three coal miners die daily — and needlessly — from black lung disease; over 1,000 coal miners perish every year.

As West Virginia coalfield journalist Ken Ward noted this week, the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) will be sponsoring six public hearings this winter on new rules proposed by the Obama administration that should stop this scandalous workplace tragedy.

Two questions beg to be asked:

Will the Republican-led Congress support these new rules, or will they strip mine safety laws again and allow the scandal of black lung to continue in the name of increasing production?

And why on earth do we still have black lung disease problems?

(By the way, a report released this month at the Symposium on Occupational Safety and Health in Coal Mines found that 6,000 coal miners in China die annually from black lung disease.)

On the heels of the Chilean mine rescue last month, the White House attempted to draw attention to their “End Black Lung” campaign. The White House blog exclaimed:

In the midst of our excitement at their rescue, it is important to remember that many, many more miners lose their lives each year, not just to accidents at mines, but also to the greatest threat to American miners: black lung disease.
Sadly, because deaths from this painful disease don’t have the sudden, devastating impact or bring the media attention that mine explosions generate, black lung has gotten less attention than it deserves.

The truth is, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, black lung prevalence has only increased in recent years. In fact, over the past decade, black lung has taken the lives and devastated the families of more than 10,000 coal miners. It’s not just affecting our older workers, either — more and more, we’re seeing this disease appear in our younger miners as well.

MSHA chief Joe Main made an impassioned presentation in this video.

Back to those policy wonks and bureaucrats and business folks that keep telling me to accept the collateral damage of coal mining and coal burning — welcome to the anatomy of denial.

Right after Christmas in 1973, my grandfather received the largest check in his life, $8,347, as part of his settlement for denied payments for black lung disability from the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. It took a subsequent Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972 to actually dislodge the proper funds for ailing coal miners.

Denial has always been part of the miner’s fate and the mine owner’s ways.

In 1831, a doctor in Edinburgh, Scotland, made the first autopsy and diagnosis of a coal miner who died from breathlessness, coughing, and chest pains. The doctor opened up his patient and found lungs of “black carbonaceous colour.” He recognized that the illness derived from “the habitual inhalation of a quantity of coal dust with which the atmosphere of a coal-mine must be constantly charged.”

Nearly a century later, despite the mounting death toll from “miner’s lung,” coal companies, and the governmental agencies under their thumbs, still denied the existence black lung, and went so far as to have their company doctors declare that the inhalation of coal dust made a miner “immune to tuberculosis.”

In 1919, during a nationwide strike, the United Mine Workers called for protection from coal dust and its black lung counterpart, and noted that the need for a shorter work day was actually the result of “miner’s asthma.” Nonetheless, the health hazard of coal dust went unnoticed for decades.

In fact, despite various state initiatives for examinations and medical care, it took an aggressive campaign by the United Mine Workers in the late 1960s for the issue to be recognized on a federal level. Even then, it wasn’t until a mining disaster in West Virginia, which took 78 lives, that President Richard Nixon begrudgingly signed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which included the Black Lung Benefits Program, into law. An estimated 250,000 coal miners have died from black lung disease; a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study found that 10,000 miners have died from black lung in the last decade. Three times as many suffered an agonizing fate of respiratory problems throughout their lives.

The miners gave their lives; the taxpayers, not the coal companies, picked up the bill. Over the past four decades, the Black Lung Benefits Program has cost more than $44 billion. Although the law mandated the program to be funded by the coal industry, a report by the Environmental Affairs Board at the University of California in Santa Barbara found that the mining companies had “borrowed $8.7 billion from the federal Treasury since the program’s inception. This taxpayer-funded shortage is expected to increase to $68 billion by 2040.” The reported concluded: “Black lung compensation, a cost associated directly with the operation of the coal industry, is a serious expense borne by the public. This expense
does not show up on the utility bill, but is paid for by consumers nonetheless.”

For a Republican-led Congress about to take over Washington, DC, I hope the fate of the coal miners and their families and communities — and our nation’s dependence on dirty and deadly coal — is not overlooked.

Perhaps they may even begin the discussion of a GI Bill for coal miners, as part of a commitment to a just transition in the coalfields for a clean energy and sustainable future — for coal miners, too.

This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.

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