Black Lung Diagnoses in Coal Miners Doubled Over Decade, Report Finds

by | Jul 9, 2012

Black lung, a disease that scars coal miners’ lungs, making it difficult to breathe, has seen a resurgence since the 1990s with diagnoses doubling over the past decade, according to a joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, NPR and The Charleston Gazette.

Cases of miners with the worst, most advanced stage of the disease have quadrupled since the 1980s in portions of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. The disease appears to progress the most rapidly in younger miners, the investigation found.

From 2000 to 2011, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration received more than 53,000 valid samples showing an underground miner had been exposed to more dust than was allowed. The agency issued just under 2,400 violations.  The investigation also found that MSHA routinely gives mining companies extra time to fix cited dust problems, granting extensions in 57 percent of cases over the same time period.

Toxic silica dust, which causes black lung, is generated when machines cut through rock to get to thinner coal seams. Legislation in 1969 set limits on coal dust in an effort to eradicate the disease.

The investigation, which includes data analyzed by epidemiologist Scott Laney at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found coal mining companies have systematically exploited coal dust measurement laws, even as regulations increased. The companies routinely deceive federal regulators with sampling that minimized dust exposure, the news organizations reported.

The problem has been compounded by weak enforcement by regulators, the investigation found. The system relies heavily on self-reporting by mining companies.

Coal mining and regulation of the industry has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of the explosion at the Massey Energy-owned Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 workers.

The federal government exerts control over the coal mining industry through regulation. The government also owns the rights to the majority of low-sulfur coal reserves in Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Colorado and New Mexico, according to the USGS. In May, the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians sued to block coal leases in Wyoming, related to what called one of the largest coal-mining plans ever approved by the US government.

Photo from Flickr user appalachian.voices, CC 2.0

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