Coal Tattoo

The report from Davitt McAteer’s independent investigation team contained some surprise findings that got only brief mentions in some of the media reports, but are worth much more attention than that.

It turns out that most of the miners killed in that terrible explosion on April 5, 2010, had black lung disease, or Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (CWP). As the report explains:

At our request a recognized expert in occupational diseases and with experience in lung examinations of this sort reviewed the autopsy reports and determined the presence or absence of CWP.

Of the 29 victims, five did not have sufficient lung tissue available to make a determination relating to CWP: two due to massive injury and three due to autolysis. The remaining 24 victims had sufficient tissue for examination.

Seventeen of the 24 victims’ autopsies (or 71 percent) had CWP. This compares with the national prevalence rate for CWP among active underground miners in the U.S. is 3.2 percent, and the rate in West Virginia is 7.6 percent. The ages of the UBB victims with CWP ranged from 25 to 61 years.

The report concluded:

The victims at UBB constitute a random sample of miners. The fact that 71 percent of them show evidence of CWP is an alarming finding given the ages and work history of these men.

The only media outlet I’ve seen so far to give much detailed coverage to this issue is the Center for Public Integrity, which headlined its story, Persistent black lung, old scourge of coal, found in autopsies of most Massey miners.  They explained:

Headlines are sure to focus on the explosion and its causes, but black lung claims many more victims each year — perhaps as many as 10,000 between 1995 and 2005, according to estimates of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health , a federal research agency.

… In 2009, MSHA launched an initiative meant to eradicate black lung, and, in October 2010, the agency proposed a rule to limit miners’ exposure to dust. It would cut the current standard in half, require the use of personal dust monitors that provide data instantaneously, impose tougher dust sampling requirements and increase medical monitoring of miners. Current sampling is performed sporadically, and results can take weeks to come back from a lab.

Many mining industry representatives have lined up in opposition to the rule. There is no evidence that the proposed dust standard will protect miners any more than the current one, said Carol Raulston, a spokesperson for the National Mining Association . The industry has argued that the requirement could have serious economic consequences.

But Dr. Edward Petsonk, a physician and black lung expert, told the center:

It’s hard to understand how one could argue that reducing the amount of dust that’s inhaled would not reduce the amount of the disease.