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Blankenship and black lung: Why we can't call coal clean

Three miners die daily from the inhalation of coal dust

November 19, 2014 2:00AM ET

On Nov. 20, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will finally step before a U.S. district court judge at the Robert C. Byrd Federal Building in Beckley, West Virginia. He faces numerous charges of conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards relating to the 2010 Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners.

According to the federal grand jury indictment, Blankenship “knew that UBB was committing hundreds of safety-law violations every year and that he had the ability to prevent most of the violations that UBB was committing.”

Though the indictment is welcome, his outlaw ways are hardly unique. Such an indictment could be issued to all coal companies that continue to ignore the preventable ravages of black lung disease and workplace safety — as well as the documented health effects of mountaintop removal and strip mining on nearby residents. The Blankenship case also condemns government regulators who have failed to protect coal miners and their communities.

Industry in denial

While misleading election ads spent countless dollars decrying the so-called war on coal, few politicians in coal country or anywhere else in the nation have offered more than a shrug to the soaring rates of black lung disease. Three coal miners die daily from the inhalation of coal dust, adding up to more than 10,000 deaths in the last decade.

A special autopsy investigation of the UBB disaster in 2013 found that 71 percent of the miners had black lung, a rate 10 times the average for southern West Virginia, according to a National Public Radio report. One victim with black lung worked less than five years in the mines.

The revelation was dismaying but should not surprise. The health of coal miners and nearby residents remains a shameful chapter of denial by the coal industry in U.S. politics and workplace justice. An epidemiological study published last month in Environmental Science and Technology, for example, found a direct connection between exposure to mountaintop removal dust and lung cancer, but mountaintop removal continues unabated in central Appalachian communities.

Black lung research alone should put to rest the endless political chatter over “clean coal,” a decades-old term that offends anyone who has witnessed the suffering of coal miners.

In a recent interview on National Public Radio’s “Here and Now,” Robert Cohen, director of the Black Lung Clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago, discussed the reasons for the spike in severe black lung. “The bottom line is that coal miners are being overexposed, and these are miners that are working — and had been working — under what we considered modern dust controls,” he said.

What’s clear is that those modern dust controls are far from sufficient. On Aug. 1, the Mine Safety and Health Administration instituted much needed and long overdue protection rules. If properly enforced, the new standards will eliminate loopholes that have hidden the extent to which miners are exposed to high dust levels and will expand air sampling, among other improvements.

Unfortunately, because of lax oversight, such rules are too often not enforced. An investigation published last week by National Public Radio and Mine Safety and Health News found that “thousands of mine operators fail to pay safety penalties, even as they continue to manage dangerous — and sometimes deadly — mining operations.” Even worse, the investigation concluded, “federal regulators seem unable or unwilling to make mine owners pay.”

Over the past four decades, the Black Lung Benefits payments have totaled more than $45 billion, much of it shouldered by American taxpayers.

Even with proper enforcement, these rules will come too late for many. According to a recent report, rates of severe black lung disease in central Appalachia have reached levels not seen since the 1970s. The title of the report, published last month in The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, should be a chilling reminder of a century of shame: “Resurgence of a Debilitating and Entirely Preventable Respiratory Disease Among Working Coal Miners.”

Preventable disease

Black lung, an entirely preventable respiratory disease that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of needless deaths, was first described nearly two centuries ago. In 1831 a doctor in Edinburgh, Scotland, performed an autopsy on a coal miner who died after suffering from coughing and chest pains; his lungs revealed shreds of “black carbonaceous colour,” the doctor wrote, concluding that the illness derived from “the habitual inhalation of a quantity of coal dust with which the atmosphere of a coal-mine must be constantly charged.”

But even into the 1960s, despite the mounting death toll from miner’s lung, coal companies set on cutting corners and maximizing production, along with inept governmental agencies, denied the existence of black lung and even had company doctors testify that the inhalation of coal dust made a miner immune to tuberculosis.

Such blatant denial of the facts continues, even in the face of autopsies. In a recent follow-up report to his Pulitzer Prize–winning series, “Breathless and Burdened: Dying From Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine,” Center for Public Integrity reporter Chris Hamby chronicled the death of 67-year-old coal miner Steve Day, whose claims for black lung compensation after 35 years in the mines were denied despite overwhelming evidence of breathing impairment.

“Like many other miners, he had lost primarily because of the opinions of a unit of doctors at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions that had long been the go-to place for coal companies seeking negative X-ray readings to help defeat a benefits claim,” Hamby wrote. The autopsy, like the one performed in 1831, provided the “final and overwhelming evidence” that medical experts hired by coal companies were wrong.

“He’s lived a hard life, and hard he’ll die,” Appalachian balladeer Hazel Dickens sings in her iconic ballad “Black Lung,” concluding, “Black lung’s done got him. His time is nigh.”

Serious expense

Miners like my grandfather began to receive settlements for denied payments for black lung disability after the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. It took the Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972 to get the proper funds distributed to ailing coal miners.

Over the past four decades, the Black Lung Benefits payments have totaled more than $45 billion, much of it shouldered by American taxpayers. Five years ago, a report by the Environmental Affairs Board at the University of California at Santa Barbara concluded, “Black lung compensation, a cost associated directly with the operation of the coal industry, is a serious expense borne by the public. This expense does not show up on the utility bill but is paid for by consumers nonetheless.”

In 2014 that bill is still being paid — and needlessly so — by this country’s coal miners. With the Blankenship indictment, let’s hope the federal government is finally ready to take action.

Jeff Biggers is the author of the forthcoming “Damnatio Memoriae,” a play on immigration in Italy, among other works.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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