Does Anyone Care That Black Lung Kills 1,000 Coal Miners Annually?

Whenever policy wonks or bureaucrats or business folk in
temperature-controlled (coal-fired generated) offices admonish me to
accept the reality of dirty coal in our lives, I remind them of this

Three coal miners die daily--and needlessly--from black lung disease; over 1,000 coal miners perish every year.

As West Virginia coalfield journalist Ken Ward noted
this week, the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) will be
sponsoring six public hearings this winter on new rules proposed by the
Obama administration that should stop this scandalous workplace tragedy.

Two questions beg to be asked:

Will the Republican-led Congress support these new rules--or will they strip mine safety laws again and allow the scandal of black lung to continue in the name of increasing production?

And why on earth do we still have black lung disease problems?

(By the way, a report
a report released this month at the Symposium on Occupational Safety
and Health in Coal Mines found that 6,000 coal miners in China die
annually from black lung disease.)

On the heels of the Chilean mine rescue last month, the White House
attempted to draw attention to their "End Black Lung" campaign. The White House blog exclaimed:

In the midst of our excitement at their rescue, it is important to
remember that many, many more miners lose their lives each year, not
just to accidents at mines, but also to the greatest threat to American
miners: black lung disease.

Sadly, because deaths from this painful disease don't have the
sudden, devastating impact or bring the media attention that mine
explosions generate, black lung has gotten less attention than it

The truth is, according to the National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health, black lung prevalence has only increased in recent
years. In fact, over the past decade, black lung has taken the lives and
devastated the families of more than 10,000 coal miners. It's not just
affecting our older workers, either - more and more, we're seeing this
disease appear in our younger miners as well.

MSHA chief Joe Main made an impassioned presentation in this video.

Back to those policy wonks and bureaucrats and business folks that
keep telling me to accept the collateral damage of coal mining and coal
burning--welcome to the anatomy of denial.

Right after Christmas in 1973, my grandfather received the largest
check in his life, $8,347, as part of his settlement for denied payments
for black lung disability from the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety
Act of 1969. It took a subsequent Black Lung Benefits Act of 1972 to
actually dislodge the proper funds for ailing coal miners.

Denial has always been part of the miner's fate and the mine owner's ways.

In 1831, a doctor in Edinburgh, Scotland, made the first autopsy and
diagnosis of an afflicted coal miner who died from breathlessness,
coughing, and chest pains. The doctor opened up his patient and found
lungs of "black carbonaceous colour." He recognized 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."

Nearly a century later, despite the mounting death toll from "miner's
lung," coal companies, and the governmental agencies under their
thumbs, still denied the existence black lung, and went so far as to
have their company doctors declare that the inhalation of coal dust made
a miner "immune to tuberculosis." )

In 1919, during a nationwide strike, the United Mine Workers called
for protection from coal dust and its black lung counterpart, and noted
that the need for a shorter work day was actually the result of "miner's
asthma." Nonetheless, the health hazard of coal dust went unnoticed for

In fact, despite various state initiatives for examinations and
medical care, it took an aggressive campaign by the United Mine Workers
in the late 1960s for the issue to be recognized on a federal level.
Even then, it wasn't until a mining disaster in West Virginia, which
took seventy-eight lives, that President Richard Nixon begrudgingly
signed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which included the Black
Lung Benefits Program, into law. An estimated 250,000 coal miners have
died from black lung disease; a National Institute for Occupational
Safety and Health study found that 10,000 miners have died from black
lung in the last decade. Three times as many suffered an agonizing fate
of respiratory problems throughout their lives.

The miners gave their lives; the taxpayers, not the coal companies,
picked up the bill. Over the past four decades, the Black Lung Benefits
Program has cost more than $44 billion. Although the law mandated the
program to be funded by the coal industry, a report by the Environmental
Affairs Board at the University of California in Santa Barbara found
that the mining companies had "borrowed $8.7 billion from the federal
Treasury since the program's inception. This taxpayer-funded shortage is
expected to increase to $68 billion by 2040." The reported concluded:
"Black lung compensation, a cost associated directly with the operation
of the coal industry, is a serious expense borne by the public. This
does not show up on the utility bill, but is paid for by consumers nonetheless."

For a Republican-led Congress about to take over Washington, DC, I
hope the fate of the coal miners and their families and communities--and
our nation's dependence on dirty and deadly coal--is not overlooked.

Perhaps they may even begin the discussion of a GI Bill for coal
miners, as part of a commitment to a just transition in the coalfields
for a clean energy and sustainable future--for coal miners, too.

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