Coal Tattoo

Special report: The new face of black lung

A marcher holds a grim message during a black lung rally. Photographer and date unknown, courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries.

Anybody who cares about worker health and safety issues is following the fantastic series of articles being produced by the Center for Public Integrity under the title Hard Labor.  And folks in the coalfields know NPR’s Howard Berkes as the national journalist who has stuck with the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster story longer than anybody.

The Gazette and I were fortunate enough to work with the center and NPR on a new collection of stories about the re-emergence of black lung disease among our nation’s coal miners. The project began on Sunday in the Gazette-Mail. In a story headlined  The new face of black lung: Deadly coal disease on rise again, CPI’s Chris Hamby reported:

Ray Marcum bears the marks of a bygone era of coal mining. At 83, his voice is raspy, his eastern Kentucky accent thick and his forearms leathery. A black pouch of Stoker’s 24C chewing tobacco pokes out of the back pocket of his jeans. “I started chewing in the mines to keep the coal dust out of my mouth,” he says.

Plenty of that dust still found its way to his lungs. For the past 30 years, he’s gotten a monthly check to compensate him for the disease that steals his breath — the old bane of miners known as black lung.

Ray Marcum, left, and Tommy Marcum share fishing stories at Jenny Wiley State Park near Prestonsburg, Ky., on Saturday, June 16., 2012. (James Crisp/AP Images for The Center for Public Integrity)

In mid-century, when Marcum worked, dust filled the mines, largely uncontrolled. Almost half of miners who worked at least 25 years contracted the disease. Amid strikes throughout the West Virginia coalfields, Congress made a promise in 1969: Mining companies would have to keep dust levels down, and black lung would be virtually eradicated.

Marcum doesn’t have to look far to see that hasn’t happened. There’s his middle son, Donald, who, at 51, has had eight pieces of his lungs removed. He sometimes has trouble making it through a prayer when he’s filling in as a preacher at Solid Rock Baptist Church.

There’s James, the youngest. At 50, his breathing is becoming more labored, and his doctor has already discussed hooking him up to an oxygen tank part-time.

Both began working in the late 1970s – years after dust rules took effect – and both began displaying symptoms in their 30s. Donald now has the most severe, fastest-progressing form of the disease, known as complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis. James and the oldest Marcum son, Thomas, 59, have a simpler form, but James has reached the worst stage and is deteriorating.

Men with lungs like the Marcums’ aren’t supposed to exist. “In 1969, I publicly proclaimed that the disease would go away before we learned more about it,” said Dr. Donald Rasmussen, a pioneer in recognizing and diagnosing black lung who is still practicing, at 84, in Beckley, W.Va. “I was dead wrong.”

Throughout the coalfields of Appalachia, in small community clinics and in government labs, it has become clear: Black lung is back.

The disease’s resurgence represents a failure to deliver on a 40-year-old pledge to miners in which few are blameless, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR has found. The system for monitoring dust levels is tailor-made for cheating, and mining companies haven’t been shy about doing so. Meanwhile, regulators have sometimes neglected to enforce even these porous rules.

We continued that story in Monday’s Gazette and you can read a longer and more detailed version here on the Center for Public Integrity’s website, and the first of a two-part web story from NPR is available online here.  Reporting by NPR will continue with stories this afternoon on All Things Considered and tomorrow morning on Morning Edition.

The sad legacy of industry cheating and government inaction on black lung disease has been documented in great detail before, with the incredible 1998 series Dust, Deception and Death in the Louisville Courier-Journal, and the C-J brought great depth again to reporting on the diseases resurgence with a follow-up project a few years ago.

This new project brings much new reporting and documents continued problems — including industry cheating and, incredibly, more government inaction. For example, as Chris Hamby explained in his story:

… The system for monitoring dust levels is almost designed not to detect problems. Nor has MSHA always been swift to act when violations do surface.

From 2000 to 2011, MSHA received more than 53,000 valid samples — both from companies and its own inspectors — that showed an underground miner had been exposed to more dust than was allowed, yet the agency issued just under 2,400 violations, a Center analysis of MSHA data showed.

This may be attributable, in part, to the way the rules are written. When companies submit five samples to MSHA, some are allowed to be above the limit. Only the average of these five has to be low enough, allowing companies to negate high samples taken from miners enshrouded in dust. What’s more, the pump runs for only eight hours, even if the miner works 10 or 12.

While an inspector is sampling, a company is allowed to mine as little as half the amount of coal it normally does. Companies that typically cared little about hanging curtains to keep air flowing through the mine or making sure water sprays used to suppress dust were working suddenly did when it came time to sample, several miners said.

Even when a company gets caught with samples that are too high, all it has to do to make the citation go away is take five of its own samples that indicate compliance.

Charleston lawyer Tim Bailey, who represents miners and their families, explained it this way:

The analogy I use is, if I pull you over for speeding, going 80 in a 50 … and I tell you … here’s a journal, and I want you to record your speed on this same piece of road for the next five days. And, if at the end of those five days, your speed is below the speed limit, then I am going to tear your ticket up.

The series includes tons of charts and graphics from by the Gazette, the Center for Public Integrity, and NPR News.  Online today, Howard Berkes has an interesting sidebar about how respirators for miners are probably not the answer the ending black lung.

Credit for the bulk of this project goes to Chris Hamby and Howard Berkes. I contributed what I hope are some helpful sidebars that provided some history and context for the overall issue. For example, in Sunday’s paper, we published a story headlined, “Dust reforms stalled by years of inaction,” that detailed how MSHA administrations from both parties have failed to act to end black lung:

For more than a quarter-century, government efforts to end deadly black lung disease have hit various brick walls, built by opposition from one side or the other.

Industry lobbyists object that tougher dust limits and more rigorous sampling requirements go too far. Labor leaders complain those same proposals are far too weak.

Miners are left with the same system that experts have agreed hasn’t worked for decades. And thousands of those miners have paid with their health or their lives.

And in today’s Gazette, I tried to explain how the concerns of coalfield political leaders about protecting miners’ jobs don’t seem to extend to protecting their health and lives:

Across the Appalachian coalfields these days, it’s hard to go anywhere without hearing about what mining lobbyists and political leaders call the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

Radio ads blare the message of lost jobs and stalled permits. Lawmakers propose measures to block U.S. Environmental Protection Agency air pollution rules. Industry lobby groups and state officials pursue lawsuits to stop new water quality guidance on mountaintop removal mining.

Seldom mentioned by coal industry advocates is a little-noticed move by their allies in Congress to delay — and potentially end altogether — another Obama effort, this one aimed at saving the lives of thousands of coal miners.

It happened in mid-December 2011, in a legislative maneuver that got little media attention. The tactic and its potential impacts certainly avoided the sort of outcry that has come each time the EPA proposed new restrictions on mountaintop removal mining or the disposal of toxic coal ash.