On the Disturbing Return of Black Lung

Sarah Lahm July 27, 2018

Coal miner Jaden Fredrickson, 26, of Cheat Lake, W.Va., waits prior to the arrival of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt who visited the Harvey Mine on April 13, 2017 in Sycamore, Pennsylvania. The Harvey Mine, owned by CNX Coal Resources, is part of the largest underground mining complex in the United States. (Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images)

The push to revive America’s coal indus­try has gen­er­at­ed alarm because it is almost cer­tain to wors­en the cli­mate cri­sis. But the indus­try also brings an imme­di­ate human cost: black lung dis­ease. Black lung is an often fatal con­di­tion con­tract­ed by min­ers who breathe in coal and sil­i­ca dust on the job. Rates of the dis­ease dropped towards the end of the 20th cen­tu­ry, thanks in part to fed­er­al­ly man­dat­ed reduc­tions in the amount of coal dust min­ers were allowed to breathe in. Now, researchers at the Nation­al Insti­tute for Occu­pa­tion­al Safe­ty and Health have doc­u­ment­ed a trou­bling new trend: Black lung dis­ease cas­es, par­tic­u­lar­ly among younger min­ers, have risen sharply since the mid-1990s.

One chart from the group, pub­lished by the New York Times ear­li­er in 2018, shows that in 1995 there were 3.7 cas­es per 1,000 min­ers.” By 2015, that num­ber had jumped to over 50 cas­es per 1,000 miners.

Over­all, there has been a steady upsurge in the num­ber of cas­es of black lung, includ­ing in its most aggres­sive forms. A 2018 Nation­al Pub­lic Radio report iden­ti­fied many rea­sons for the increase, includ­ing the fact that many min­ers are work­ing longer hours with less time to rest and recov­er between shifts. Advances in min­ing tech­nol­o­gy have also led to the use of more pow­er­ful extrac­tion machines that throw more tox­ic coal dust into the air and into the lungs of coal min­ers. These fac­tors have made the coal min­ing regions of Appalachia the epi­cen­ter of one of the worst indus­tri­al health dis­as­ters in U.S. his­to­ry,” accord­ing to a recent arti­cle by Ken­tucky lawyer, Evan Smith.

Smith advo­cates on behalf of coal min­ers through his work at the Appalachi­an Cit­i­zens’ Law Cen­ter. Writ­ing for the West Vir­ginia Law Review, Smith calls the uptick in black lung cas­es evi­dence of a gut-wrench­ing rever­sal of 20th cen­tu­ry progress.” Black lung dis­ease is pre­ventable, Smith insists, and should have gone the way of small­pox long ago. (Black lung is actu­al­ly not a med­ical term, Smith points out, and notes that it is just one name for a host of debil­i­tat­ing phys­i­cal con­di­tions expe­ri­enced by min­ers.) Although min­ing has always been a dan­ger­ous occu­pa­tion, rates of black lung dis­ease did drop from the 1970’s until the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tu­ry, thanks to improved work­place and envi­ron­men­tal regulations.

Dan­ger­ous work­ing conditions

Look­ing beyond black lung, recent inci­dents such as the 2010 Upper Big Branch min­ing dis­as­ter in West Vir­ginia have shown that work­ing con­di­tions for coal min­ers often remain har­row­ing­ly unsafe. Por­tions of the Upper Big Branch mine explod­ed in 2010, killing 29 work­ers. In the after­math, autop­sies were car­ried out on a major­i­ty of the lungs of those killed, reveal­ing that 71 per­cent of them had black lung dis­ease, includ­ing a work­er who was just 25 years old when he died. Upper Big Branch was owned then by Massey Ener­gy, whose CEO, Don Blanken­ship, was sen­tenced to one year in prison for his role in mak­ing the mine an unsafe place to work.

One of the things that made the Upper Big Branch mine so unsafe was the fact that Blanken­ship had dri­ven out the min­ers’ union. Blanken­ship, who is a cur­rent U.S. Sen­ate can­di­date in West Vir­ginia as a mem­ber of the Con­sti­tu­tion Par­ty, made it his per­son­al cam­paign to break the union at the mine,” accord­ing to a 2010 report by Pub­lic Radio Inter­na­tion­al. This result­ed in work­ers hav­ing to take on 12-hour shifts as one of Massey Energy’s report­ed cost-cut­ting mea­sures. What fol­lowed was a num­ber of arti­cles argu­ing, as reporters Tay­lor Kuyk­endall and Hira Fawad did in 2015, that union-staffed mines are more pro­duc­tive and less dan­ger­ous for work­ers. One key piece of Far­wad and Kuykendall’s evi­dence for this comes from safe­ty records in 2014, when just one out of 16 work-relat­ed min­ing deaths occurred at a union site.

Despite Kentucky’s his­to­ry of work­er mil­i­tan­cy, today there are zero union mines left in the state, which is at the heart of Appalachi­an coal coun­try. Still, a group called Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth con­tin­ues to advo­cate on behalf of the thou­sands of coal min­ers who work in the state. Acknowl­edg­ing the rise in black lung dis­ease among min­ers, the group aims to move away from rely­ing on tox­ic, fos­sil fuel indus­try jobs such as coal mining.

A dying industry

A 30-year-old orga­ni­za­tion, Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth was born out of a late 1970s move­ment that doc­u­ment­ed who was ben­e­fit­ing most from Kentucky’s coal-rich land. (Hint: it wasn’t local com­mu­ni­ties.) The group orga­nizes work­ers and res­i­dents around its vision of a more inclu­sive, demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety and cites direct action as one of its key strate­gies. Right now, a promi­nent fea­ture of the group’s work is called Appalachi­an Tran­si­tion, which is built around the recog­ni­tion that, despite Trump’s cam­paign ral­lies, coal min­ing is a dying indus­try. The goal, accord­ing to the Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth web­site, is to sup­port coal com­mu­ni­ties and work­ers as we shift away from a fos­sil fuel econ­o­my to one that is more sus­tain­able and equitable.”

The group crit­i­cizes the insta­bil­i­ty and inequity of the coal indus­try, which often results in large, non-union cor­po­ra­tions cut­ting a destruc­tive path through Kentucky’s rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth shares sto­ries of peo­ple who have reclaimed the land in the Ken­tucky moun­tains, in order to rein­vest in the envi­ron­ment and learn 21st cen­tu­ry skills such as restora­tive agri­cul­tur­al prac­tices and sus­tain­able forestry — some­thing that has been done in oth­er coal-pro­duc­ing regions in Ger­many. The ulti­mate goal is the cre­ation of a base of grass­roots pow­er among Ken­tuck­ians, even as the state’s leg­is­la­ture con­tin­ues to align itself with cor­po­rate interests.

For proof, one has to look no fur­ther than a recent case con­cern­ing black lung dis­ease and work­ers’ rights. Just weeks ago, exec­u­tives from the now-closed Arm­strong Coal com­pa­ny in Owens­boro, Ken­tucky were charged with fal­si­fy­ing fed­er­al­ly man­dat­ed coal dust tests designed to pro­tect min­ers from incur­able black lung dis­ease,” as an edi­to­r­i­al in the Lex­ing­ton Couri­er Jour­nal put it. The case against Arm­strong Coal was prompt­ed by two coal min­ers who went pub­lic with their sto­ry in 2014, detail­ing the destruc­tive impact of black lung dis­ease on their lives. Work­ers felt forced into going along with the company’s decep­tive poli­cies, accord­ing to news reports — a sit­u­a­tion not unlike that in many mines, espe­cial­ly where union pro­tec­tion has been lost.

The Arm­strong Coal case prompt­ed anoth­er Ken­tucky newspaper’s edi­to­r­i­al board to declare that coal min­ers’ lives still mat­ter,” yet it might be hard for those seek­ing med­ical help for black lung dis­ease in Ken­tucky to believe this. In July, new state laws went into effect that not only make it hard­er for work­ers hurt on the job to qual­i­fy for work­ers com­pen­sa­tion, but also excludes the most qual­i­fied physi­cians from being heard in black lung claims.” When the laws were passed, Smith, of the Appalachi­an Cit­i­zens’ Law Cen­ter, told Nation­al Pub­lic Radio that this move keeps Ken­tucky coal min­ers from using high­ly qual­i­fied and reli­able experts to prove their state black lung claims [and] looks like just anoth­er step in the race to the bot­tom to gut work­er protections.”

So, when Don­ald Trump and his allies wax poet­ic about bring­ing clean, beau­ti­ful coal” jobs back to places like Ken­tucky, it seems fair to ask a sim­ple ques­tion: at what cost?

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She is a 2015 Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine Edu­ca­tion Fel­low and blogs about edu­ca­tion at bright​lights​mall​ci​ty​.com.
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