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New disclosures bring more calls to end black lung

Read the report here.CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- New disclosures by a nonprofit journalism organization provide more evidence that the federal government needs to move more quickly to force the coal industry to eliminate black lung disease, mine safety advocates said this week.

United Mine Workers union spokesman Phil Smith said the reports from the Center for Public Integrity underscore the need for the Obama administration to finalize new black lung protection rules.

"We know what causes black lung and we know how to prevent it," Smith said. "That people are still getting black lung means that either the respirable dust standards are too low or the companies aren't abiding by those standards -- or both."

Smith and some other mine safety advocates spoke after publication this week of a three-part black lung series by Center for Public Integrity investigative reporter Chris Hamby.

The series examined the aggressive approach taken by coal industry law firm Jackson Kelly to fighting coal miner claims for black lung benefits and raised questions about testimony in those cases by doctors from Johns Hopkins University.

On Friday, the latest story detailed the coal industry's efforts to discredit science linking coal dust exposure to a range of lung ailments. It focused on Ted Latusek, a miner who has been fighting for 19 years to win benefits because of the abnormal scarring that has consumed large portions of his lungs.

The company where Latusek worked, Consol Energy, insists that coal dust isn't the cause of his disease. However, medical evidence has increasingly shown the pattern of scarring Latusek has to be a previously unrecognized type of black lung.

"The fight over the answer to that question goes to the heart of the newest battle in a longstanding war between companies and miners," the Center for Public Integrity said. "Latusek's legal tussle is the signal case in the latest effort by the coal industry to deny emerging scientific evidence and contain its liabilities, a strategy that has played out repeatedly over more than a century and locked multitudes of miners out of the benefits system."

Celeste Monforton, a former federal Mine Safety and Health Administration staffer and public health researcher, called it "shameful" for the industry to argue that a miner's dust-related lung disease is not related to his work.

"Let's not forget that, for years, the coal operators -- and the physicians who manufactured uncertainty about health effects -- insisted that breathing coal dust was not dangerous and black lung was not a disease," Monforton said.

Officials from the National Mining Association would not comment on Hamby's stories.

The center's investigation looked at issues that have long been simmering in the coalfields, where miners and their families routinely tell horror stories about their struggles to obtain black lung benefits promised to disabled miners by a law Congress passed in 1969.

At the same time, the White House continues to review a long-delayed final version of a new MSHA rule aimed at ending black lung.

Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is an irreversible and potentially deadly disease caused by exposure to coal dust.

One goal of the 1969 federal coal mine safety law was to eliminate black lung. Deaths declined for years, but experts have been warning since the 1990s that the dust limits need to be tightened. More recently, since 2003, researchers have been documenting an alarming increased incidence of the disease in younger miners, whose entire careers took place under the 1969 law's dust limits.

Last year, a joint investigation by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity, with additional reporting by The Charleston Gazette, documented widespread industry cheating on coal-dust controls and repeated inaction by regulators to try to end the disease.

Between 1996 and 2005, nearly 10,000 coal miners nationwide died of black lung, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. West Virginia recorded the second-highest black lung deaths of any state, with more than 1,800 during that period, according to NIOSH.

Three years ago, MSHA proposed a rule to tighten dust limits and take other steps to prevent black lung. That rule has been held up, in part, by Republicans in Congress, but also delayed repeatedly by the Obama administration's MSHA and Labor Department.

Sam Petsonk, coordinator of Mountain State Justice's Miner Safety and Health Project, said Friday that MSHA also needs to ensure that mine operators are using proper ventilation to control dust, rather than relying on scrubber equipment that he said provides only a Band-Aid solution.

"We shouldn't place production above miners' health by allowing operators to generate too much dust on the theory that some machine will reliably scrub it away," Petsonk said. "Too much can go wrong with that approach, and the price of such failures is more death and disability from black lung disease."

Petsonk also said miners need to band together in groups to exercise their rights to refuse to work in overly dusty conditions.

"Under federal law, American miners all have the right to refuse to work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions," he said. "Many miners use those rights all the time, but until all miners regularly exercise their rights to stay out of overly-dusty areas, we will probably continue to see more of the severe forms of black lung disease -- which are preventable."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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