As I was writing this Wednesday morning, I’m listening in on today’s big U.S. Senate committee hearing on the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to reduce greenhouse pollution from coal-fired power plants. There was quite a lot of political theater, though, and my mind kept wandering back to yesterday’s Senate HELP Committee hearing about black lung benefits.
This was a hearing called to address the many issues raised about the legal system and our medical system by Chris Hamby’s amazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning series about the way the coal industry and its lawyers and doctors work to keep miners from getting black lung benefits. We had a story on the hearing here, quoting retired coal miner Robert Bailey from Princeton, W.Va (shown in the photo above).:
But it’s worth checking out Chris’s piece, which reports:
In an extraordinary rebuke to a doctor at one of America’s top hospitals, the U.S. Department of Labor has informed about 1,100 coal miners that their claims for black lung benefits may have been wrongly denied because of the actions of a powerful physician at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, the department’s deputy secretary told senators Tuesday.
That doctor, Paul S. Wheeler, systematically found that miners did not have black lung when, in fact, many of them did. Medical opinions by the doctor should be assumed not to be credible, senators and affected miners were told.
What I couldn’t stop thinking about was why West Virginia’s political discourse doesn’t focus more on these black lung issues. Why aren’t Republicans here constantly asked why their party blocked for many, many months the Obama administration’s effort to enact new rules that would help eliminate black lung disease? Why don’t Democratic candidates like Natalie Tennant talk almost constantly about this terrible important issue, and the disgraceful way our nation has handled it?
Black lung surfaced briefly as an issue in the Republican effort to unseat Rep. Nick J. Rahall. But gosh, it’s just not in the forefront of what Democrats campaign about. Wouldn’t stopping black lung and fixing the benefits program be both good politics and have the odd benefit of being the right thing to do? If political leaders wanted to actually talk about the issue, they just have to borrow these words from Sen. Jay Rockefeller:
One of the most troubling aspects of the public debate over Black Lung disease is that many people believe it is a thing of the past – that somehow coal miners are no longer at-risk of developing the disease. The sad reality, however, is that the disease is very real and on the rise in coal mining communities throughout the country.
In the 1970s, shortly after Congress passed the first major legislation to combat Black Lung disease, 6.5 percent of all active coal miners had the disease. By the 1990s, that number had dropped to 2.1 percent. But, in the 2000s, we saw the prevalence of Black Lung disease increase to 3.2 percent – the first increase of the disease in three decades. Between 1999 and 2009, almost every single region in the country saw an increase in the percent of miners suffering from Black Lung disease. Some areas in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky are seeing rates as high as 9.0, 10.0, and even 13.2 percent.
Sadly, research is showing that younger miners are now developing more progressive forms of the disease earlier in their careers. These findings were confirmed as part of the investigation into the Upper Big Branch disaster, which took the lives of 29 coal miners in West Virginia. Autopsies of 24 victims revealed that 17 of them, or 71 percent, also suffered from Black Lung disease. Even more alarming is that five of those victims with Black Lung disease had been working for less than 10 years underground, including one miner who was only 25 years old. So, while the explosion that took their lives did so almost instantaneously, another disaster, hidden from view, was taking their lives more slowly – but just as tragically.
This rise in Black Lung disease is unacceptable. Congress and the Administration have a solemn obligation to provide coal miners with every protection from this debilitating, incurable, but preventable disease. That is why I was proud to join Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez in West Virginia in April to announce the finalization of new rules that – for the first time in 40 years – will lower coal miners’ exposure to the respirable dust that causes Black Lung disease. The Administration should be commended for taking this major step forward. With strong enforcement and implementation, these rules will undoubtedly save lives and improve the quality of life for current and future generations of coal miners.
Oh, and not for nothing … but there was another congressional hearing going on today. It was supposed to be about how to streamline the process of environmental regulation, but it included this important testimony from Appalachian Voices, talking about another coal country health crisis:
What is so notable about the science linking mountaintop removal to elevated death rates and poor health outcomes in nearby communities is not the strength of any individual study, but rather the enormous quantity of data from independent sources that all point toward dramatic increases in rates of disease and decreases in life expectancy and physical well-being.
Despite this overwhelming amount of peer-reviewed scientific data, however, regulatory agencies in Appalachian states have so far refused to consider these new studies in assessing the impact that permitting new mountaintop removal mines could have on the health of nearby residents.