Black Lung Plagues Surface Miners, New Study Shows

William Lineberry

Surface coal mines account for 48 percent of the U.S. coal supply. Though surface coal miners do not venture underground, they remain quite susceptible to black lung disease.

Black lung dis­ease, a sick­ness long asso­ci­at­ed with work­ers who mine coal under­ground, has now been linked to work­ers who take part in sur­face coal min­ing, accord­ing to a report released Fri­day by the CDC.

Although sur­face min­ing — a prac­tice that does not access coal from below ground, but instead removes the tops of moun­tains to access coal seams — pro­duces 48 per­cent of the nation’s total coal sup­ply, stud­ies had not been con­duct­ed on work­ers to test for black lung dis­ease since 2002. The new CDC study exam­ined 2,257 sur­face min­ers, and found that 46 (rough­ly 2 per­cent) test­ed pos­i­tive for black lung disease.

The region most notably hit was cen­tral Appalachia, which includes the states of Vir­ginia, Ken­tucky and West Vir­ginia. Thir­ty one out of the 46 work­ers that test­ed pos­i­tive for black lung dis­ease came from Cen­tral Appalachia. Twelve of the 46 that had black lung dis­ease had con­tract­ed the most severe form of it. Six­teen oth­er states were stud­ied along with the cen­tral Appalachi­an region.

A crude preva­lence” was found in the three Appalachi­an states as com­pared to the 16 oth­er states that were stud­ied. Sur­face min­ers in the cen­tral Appalachi­an region were more like­ly to con­tract black lung dis­ease than under­ground min­ers nation­al­ly. The nation­al rate for black lung dis­ease in under­ground min­ing is 3.2 per­cent; for sur­face min­ers in Appalachia, the rate is 3.7 percent.

The report stat­ed that employ­ers should take pre­ven­tive measures:

Sur­face coal mine oper­a­tors should mon­i­tor work­er expo­sures close­ly to ensure that both res­pirable dust and sil­i­ca are below rec­om­mend­ed lev­els to pre­vent CWP. Clin­i­cians should be aware of the risk for advanced pneu­mo­co­nio­sis among sur­face coal min­ers, in addi­tion to under­ground coal min­ers, to facil­i­tate prompt dis­ease iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and intervention.

A lawyer inter­viewed by The Couri­er-Jour­nal in Louisville, Ky., sug­gest­ed the high per­cent­age of black lung tied to Appalachi­an sur­face mines might be linked to the short­age of union­ized mines in the region. Non-union min­ers are job-scared,” the lawyer told The Couri­er Jour­nal. It’s (black lung dis­ease) a prod­uct of non-union work­places. It’s sad, really.”

The three cen­tral Appalachi­an states that were found to pro­duce high­er rates of black lung dis­ease among sur­face min­ers also had three of the high­est black-lung claims paid. Accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Labor, West Vir­ginia paid $46 mil­lion in black lung claims in 2011, Ken­tucky paid $34 mil­lion and Vir­ginia paid $23 million.

Despite coal dust serv­ing as a major cause of acci­dents and ill­ness­es, fed­er­al laws that require the amount of dust in the air are not always fol­lowed. For exam­ple, the Upper Big Branch Mine explo­sion, which killed 29 min­ers, was linked to large amounts of coal dust that enabled a methane explo­sion to occur. Of the 24 min­ers’ lungs that were able to be autop­sied, three-fourths test­ed pos­i­tive for black lung disease.

Despite a 40-year effort to end black lung dis­ease, an esti­mat­ed 10,000 min­ers have died from the dis­ease since 1995 — near­ly 1,000 min­ers each year.

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