TOPICS > Health

Deadly Black Lung Disease Rises Among Coal Miners

July 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Despite legislation meant to enact safety practices to prevent coal miners from getting black lung disease, workers are still being exposed to high levels of dust. Hari Sreenivasan talks to NPR reporter Howard Berkes about his investigation into the increased cases of the disease.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, a new investigation finds a resurgence of a deadly disease in coal mining country.

Again, Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: More than four decades ago, Congress set a goal of eradicating black lung disease by passing a law that limited miners’ exposure to coal dust.

But a joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found many miners are still exposed to too much dust, leading to a doubling of black lung rates in just a decade.

The disease, which can be accompanied by coughing, congestion and difficulty with breathing, is debilitating and irreversible. More than 10,000 miners died from it nationwide between 1995 and 2004. The analysis shows many cases in Appalachia, a region that includes parts of Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia.

In West Virginia alone, more than 2,000 miners died over a decade.

Howard Berkes of NPR was one of the lead reporters on this story. He joins me now from Salt Lake City.

Thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BERKES, National Public Radio: It’s good to be with you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, for folks who haven’t heard of or thought about black lung disease, paint us a picture of what it’s like to live with it. You were able to speak with some folks.

HOWARD BERKES: We spent some time with a number of miners who are suffering black lung.

And it’s a horrific way to die. And these miners know that that’s what they’re doing. They’re dying. They’re slowly losing the ability to breathe. Simple tasks like mowing the lawn — or one miner we spoke with talked about how he can’t even hold his two-year-old grandson for more than a few moments, become impossible with black lung.

And it just gets worse and worse. It’s — you can’t fix it. There’s no treating it. And, eventually, some miners will end up making a choice between eating and breathing, because they can’t do both at the same time. Some are afraid to fall asleep, because, while sleeping, they can’t muster the strength to get that breath down.

One physician we spoke with talked about it as if it’s like taking a screw and slowly tightening it in your throat day after day, year after year. You just lose the ability to breathe.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, so, the big question is, why is it on the rise?

HOWARD BERKES: There are a number of reasons for that — or possible reasons.

One is that coal miners are working many more hours now than they used to. The average coal miner is working 600 more hours a year than 30 years ago. Their — the coal seams are thinner now, in — especially in Appalachia and in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

The best seams have been mined out. And in those seams are threads of rock, of quartz, again especially in that region in Appalachia. And that quartz contains silica. So when the mining machines grind up the coal and rock with it, they’re creating a combination of coal dust and silica.

And that’s a particularly volatile combination. But the other thing that’s occurred is that the law that was passed to protect miners from black lung and from the dust that causes black lung was never really seriously enforced. It was filled with loopholes from the very beginning that enabled mining companies to basically game the system.

It — there’s plenty of evidence that we found that there were signs over the years that miners were being exposed to much more coal dust than they were supposed to be, that the measurements taken by mining companies were not accurate. There were even criminal cases over the years in that regard.

So it’s a combination of the conditions underground creating more dust, more exposure for miners in terms of the hours they work and a system that has really failed to protect them, as Congress promised in 1969, when it passed a law that was supposed to protect them from black lung.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Your reporting indicates discrepancies between when federal inspectors decide to measure the coal dust in the mines vs. when the companies report it themselves. How does that happen?

HOWARD BERKES: Well, that happens in part because, in the system, which is partially dependent on self-policing by mining companies, a federal mine inspector goes into a mine and takes a measurement for coal dust and finds there’s a violation, that there’s too much coal dust.

The mining company then has the opportunity to take five of its own samples of coal dust and then average them. And right off the bat, just the averaging could lower the reading. And if the averaging is below the standard, the limit, the safe limit for coal dust, then the violation is erased.

And what we found is that there were more than 50,000 coal dust — valid coal dust samples taken that were above the federal limit, but only 2,400 violations were issued. We don’t know exactly what happened with each of those cases, but it suggests that there were thousands of coal miners in those cases who were exposed to excessive coal dust, but the system that is easily gamed by mining companies was such that those overexposures didn’t result in violations issued to those companies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Howard, you also point out that more than $45 billion has been paid out in compensation by the companies and the government. Isn’t there a strong financial incentive for the companies to make sure that their workers are safe?

HOWARD BERKES: You would think so.

You would think that that kind of bill — and the companies’ share of that alone, I believe, is — I’m thinking off the top of my head — well, it’s many billions of dollars. So this is costing them a lot of money, as well as the government. So, you would think that would be a disincentive.

But everything that you do in a coal mine to limit the exposure to coal miners to mining dust involves diminishing production perhaps, slowing down the mining machines, or moving miners around so they’re not exposed as much. And these are things that, you know, on a day-to-day basis could cost a coal company money.

And we have been through a boom period in coal mining. Things have slowed down in the last few months, but this has been a boom period. Production is up. It’s threefold what it was in 1970. It was up fivefold in the year 2000. It’s — and that’s part of the reason that there may be an increase — that’s one of the reasons that there might be an increase in black lung as well.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Howard Berkes from NPR, thanks so much for your time.

HOWARD BERKES: Thank you. Appreciate it.

GWEN IFILL: You can find the full NPR story and see a chart showing black lung cases by year on our website.