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Coal miners have been inhaling deadly silica dust for decades. Now they’re dying

For decades, coal miners have been inhaling silica dust on the job. The extremely fine particles, generated when the quartz-rich limestone surrounding coal seams is cut, lodge in the lungs, obstructing respiration. According to a Frontline/NPR report, both the industry and the government understood the hazard for decades but did little to contain it. Howard Berkes of NPR joins John Yang.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is easy to lose sight of how dangerous working in a coal mine can be.

    A new investigation by "Frontline" and NPR that airs tonight called "Coal's Deadly Dust" sheds fresh light on that. It turns out that, for decades, thousands of miners were exposed to a toxic dust that led to a deadly form of black lung disease.

    John Yang tells has the story.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, this is all due to minors inhaling silica dust.

    While regulations about monitoring mine dust have been on the books since the mid-1970s, this new investigation finds that federal regulators failed to pay close enough attention to their own data. Since 2010, the government has counted 115 cases of advanced black lung nationwide.

    But the NPR/"Frontline" investigation identified more than 2,300 cases in just five Appalachian states. "Frontline" and NPR visited a Southwestern Virginia clinic that has diagnosed the biggest cluster of these cases.

    The clinic's former director talked about how his team found so many miners with the disease.

  • Ron Carson:

    We came back, and we started doing a study. I mean, and we actually had pulling X-rays back to 2014 to 2017, three years of X-rays.

    We quickly identified 416 during that three-year period. However, if we had went back to 2010, at a minimum, we could have probably doubled that.

  • Woman:

    Breathe in and out deep and fast. And out. And stop.

  • Ron Carson:

    And I don't know what your tests will reveal today, but and I tell everybody this for almost 30 years. Don't get discouraged.

  • Howard Berkes:

    But the count here at Stone Mountain is now nearly 800, with a dozen new cases a month.

  • Ron Carson:

    My buddy here. God bless you.

  • Woman:

    Thank you. God bless you.

  • Ron Carson:

    I just think that America needs to know that these miners, they have paid a price. So many years, these miners extract this coal, so that you and I can — I get teary-eyed. I'm sorry.

    They paid a price. They have paid a price, so that we can have luxury. And I just feel like America has just forgotten about them.

  • John Yang:

    The narrator's voice you just heard belongs to NPR correspondent Howard Berkes. He is the lead reporter on the investigation, and he joins us now.

    Howard, thanks so much for being — being with us. This is not coal dust. What is this? And how are the miners exposed to it?

  • Howard Berkes:

    It's silica dust.

    Silica dust is generated when mining machines cut rock with coal. And they have been cutting a lot more rock with coal in the last three decades, because the big coal seams in Appalachian were played out, and what were left were thinner seams that were embedded in this rock. This rock creates quartz, so, when you cut it, you create silica dust.

  • John Yang:

    And talk about the state of that, or the — what that silica dust does in the miners' lungs.

  • Howard Berkes:

    When the mining machines cut up the silica dust, the particles are very, very fine, so they're easily inhaled. And then they're also very sharp. And they actually lodge in lungs forever.

    And then the lungs, of course, are trying to fight the presence of this foreign substance, the silica dust particles. So it builds up fibrotic tissue, and that fibrotic tissue continues to build and continues to build.

    And, essentially, what is a device that is there to facilitate breathing becomes hard and calcified and no longer can function as a lung and can no longer make breathing possible.

  • John Yang:

    You quote a doctor saying this just — it's like suffocating while you're alive.

  • Howard Berkes:

    A pulmonologist that we spoke with described it that way.

    And when you talk to the miners — and we spoke with three dozen or so miners in the last year, all suffering from this disease — they all have descriptions of struggling for breath, waking up in the middle of the night unable to breathe. And, ultimately, this disease will kill them, and they will be unable to breathe anymore.

  • John Yang:

    And you found many, many more times the number of these cases in your survey of just five clinics — clinics in five states, rather, than the government tracked nationwide.

    Why is that? And what are the implications of that?

  • Howard Berkes:

    The government is looking at only working miners, and is actually offering free lung X-rays to working miners, and then they count the occurrence of disease as they do those X-rays.

    The law limits them to only testing working miners. And the testing is voluntary. So — and the participation rate is really low. It's only 35 percent nationwide and only 17 percent in the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky.

    So that's one subset of a larger group of people. What the clinics are seeing are miners who have been laid off or are retired. And there are tens of thousands more of those in the last eight years because of the downturn in mining. And those miners are going in to get tested because they're not working anymore. They're not getting paid.

    And if they have disease, they can apply for black lung benefits. And so that's the difference, is, the government is not looking at the great number of retired and laid-off miners, and that's what we're seeing in the occurrence of disease now.

  • John Yang:

    And this is also not a new discovery. You found documents dating back to the Clinton administration that express concern over this.

  • Howard Berkes:

    That's right.

    The Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration back in the Clinton administration had identified a cluster of advanced lung disease among coal miners in West Virginia, and they were so alarmed in these memos that I found, they were — that they actually sent out a warning to the mining industry, saying, we have got advanced disease. Silica is the cause. You have to do something about silica.

    There's really nothing that's occurring today that's surprising, except for the large number of miners who are sick and dying.

  • John Yang:

    You have covered the mining industry for quite a bit.

    The Trump administration is trying to revive mining. How is that going? And how does that fit into what you found about advanced black lung?

  • Howard Berkes:

    Well, there's really no connection between what the Trump administration's promises are on restoring mining and what's happening to these miners.

    What would really help these miners is an attempt by the Trump administration and Congress to make sure that they get the benefits that they need when they become sick, and to change the regulations, because the regulations don't directly address silica exposure.

    That's been recommended for decades. That hasn't happened for decades. And there's no proposal in the Trump administration to address that.

    The other thing is that mining has declined. There's little that a politician can do to restore it. This is all about the price of natural gas. And as long as natural gas is a lot cheaper, coal's not going to be able to compete.

    But, aside from that, the reality is that there are 1,000 mines still operating today across the country, and 50,000 coal miners still working. And there will be tens of thousands of coal miners still working for years to come, and they deserve to be able to come home from work every day healthy and whole and alive.

  • John Yang:

    Howard Berkes of NPR, his investigation airs tonight on "Frontline" on PBS stations.

    Howard, thanks for being with us.

  • Howard Berkes:

    Thanks for having me on.

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