Coal Tattoo


Over the weekend, the Lexington Herald-Leader remind us of the continuing worker health crisis in the Appalachian coalfields, with a story headlined, After decades of decline, black lung on the rise in Eastern Kentucky. They reported:

Congress intended to eradicate the disease known as black lung with a landmark 1969 law that limited underground coal miners’ exposure to dust.

Roger Cook can tell you that didn’t happen, but only if he pauses mid-sentence to take a labored breath.

Cook, 57, has black lung even though he started his 32 years as an underground miner in 1978, well after the new standards were put in place. He is among a growing number of Eastern Kentucky miners afflicted in recent years with black lung, reversing a decades-long decline of the torturous, incurable disease.

The Letcher County man had to quit the mining job he loved in April 2010 when he was diagnosed with black lung, which scars the lungs, impairs breathing and often leads to premature death.

Cook now relies on an oxygen tank to help him breathe 24 hours a day, and he still gets short of breath even while sitting. He once was an avid hunter and fisherman, but about the best he can do these days is pull close in his pickup truck to watch his grandchildren fish.

“I won’t last that long if I don’t get a transplant,” Cook said.

Their story explained:

Black lung has been the underlying or contributing cause of death of more than 76,000 miners since 1968, according to figures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. That total does not include deaths from silicosis, which is caused by breathing dust from rocks such as sandstone.

Before the 1969 mine safety act, more than 40 percent of longtime miners in some regions of the United States got black lung, according to NIOSH data. Overall, 11.2 percent of underground coal miners screened for black lung from 1970 to 1974 had the disease.

Prevalence of black lung declined steadily for several decades, dropping to 2 percent in screenings conducted from 1995 to 1999, NIOSH said in a May 2011 report. Then, mysteriously, black lung rebounded. Screenings in 2005 and 2006 found the disease in 3.3 percent of surveyed miners.

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Black lung update: Key MSHA rule delayed again

While most Americans were gearing up to enjoy their July 4 holiday, the Obama administration was on Wednesday finally posting the spring edition of its semi-annual regulatory agenda. It’s available here and has some interesting changes regarding the Department of Labor‘s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

First, and perhaps most importantly, MSHA appears to be continuing its delays in finalizing a new rule aimed at helping to eliminate deadly black lung disease. As we’ve discussed before, MSHA had most recently listed a target date for a final rule as June 2013. Of course, June has come and gone — and now MSHA is listing a target date for a final rule as September 2013. As of this morning, the final rule is not listed as having been received by the White House Office of Management and Budget for a review that could take months.

The latest MSHA agenda also indicates the agency is again pushing back the date to finalize a new rule to require “proximity detection devices” on continuous mining machines in the nation’s underground coal mines. Previously, agency officials listed a target date of May 2013 to finalize that rule. Their latest regulatory agenda lists a new target date of August 2013. MSHA  also moved back the date to issue a proposed rule to require proximity detection systems on other mobile underground equipment — from July 2013 to November 2013 — for a proposed rule has been sitting at the White House OMB since September 2011.

The new MSHA regulatory agenda also lists a new item called “Regulatory Actions in Responseto Recommendations Resulting From Investigation of the Upper Big Branch Explosion.” It’s an information request that is described this way:

In response to recommendations resulting from MSHA’s investigation of the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine explosion and MSHA’s internal review of its actions at UBB, MSHA is initiating a new regulatory action that would address issues related to the explosion. The request for information will request data, comments, and information on issues related to rock dusting, ventilation, mine examinations, certified persons, and MSHA-approved instructors. 

MSHA doesn’t plan to publish the information request until October 2013.

Review confirms black lung at Upper Big Branch

Just out from Howard Berkes at NPR is a piece headlined, Doctors Confirm Black Lung In Victims Of Mine Blast, reporting:

The tragic deaths of 29 coal miners in a has provided new evidence of a resurgence of the disease known as black lung.

On Monday, a team of pathologists and lung disease experts will present the results of from some of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia. They’ll describe the findings at the American Thoracic Society’s annual conference in Philadelphia this weekend.

“Our pathology — where we actually see the lung tissue, we actually see the scars, we see the dust — confirms we’re seeing a problem,” says , the lead researcher and chairman of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Cook County Health and Hospital System in Illinois.


Cohen’s team reviewed lung tissue obtained from autopsies of seven of the Upper Big Branch victims. Only seven families of the deceased coal miners granted permission for the study.

Six of the seven samples bore telltale scarring that indicates black lung. One of the samples showed a “fairly advanced form of the disease.”

One of the miners worked less than five years underground and several had about 10 years in coal mines. They ranged in age from about 30 to 60. The names and specific information about the miners weren’t disclosed because their families were promised confidentiality.

Cohen says the relatively young ages of some of the miners and limited tenure underground “means that there were probably some intense exposures and excessive exposures over a short period of time. That raises some concerns.”

This new conference presentation paper, available online here, confirms what Davitt McAteer’s independent Upper Big Branch investigation team reported two years ago, and adds to the evidence — including another new scientific report we covered last Sunday in the Gazette-Mail — that black lung remains a serious concern in the coalfields. Yet, as Howard notes in his NPR piece, the Obama administration’s proposals to try to fight black lung remain stalled:

The agency set a target date for next month for a rule-making on its proposal but it’s unclear if that deadline will be met. MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere says, “I have no new information about the dust rule.”

Today’s news release from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration about its monthly “impact” inspections included a new twist:

MSHA recently added a criterion to its impact inspection policy to emphasize the selection of mines that have had compliance issues related to respirable coal dust.

According to MSHA:

All of the coal mines selected in September previously had been cited for violations regarding respirable dust sampling results or methods, inadequate dust control or ventilation plans, on-shift examination violations or hazard complaints related to respirable dust. The impact inspections focused on compliance with the respirable dust standard and with approved ventilation and dust control plans.

MSHA chief Joe Main said:

As part of our overall strategy to improve compliance in the nation’s mines, and because of the egregious nature of some of the coal dust-related violations our inspectors have encountered during past impact inspections, I’ve instructed our enforcement personnel to give special consideration to mines with respirable dust or ventilation and dust control plan compliance concerns.

In its release, MSHA offered an Alpha Natural Resources mine as an example:

… An impact inspection was conducted Sept. 10 at Elk Run Coal Inc.’s Roundbottom Powellton Mine in Boone County, W.Va., due to overexposures and the mine’s otherwise poor compliance history with respirable dust requirements. Inspectors issued 20 citations and one order during the health-focused inspection.

Continue reading…

Coal mine safety and the presidential election

Helmets are place on crosses on a table during a memorial service for the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine during which President Barack Obama will give the eulogy in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

For folks who may have missed them, we had two stories in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail that addressed coal-mining issues that we certainly aren’t hearing candidates talk about during the ongoing presidential race — even as both President Obama and Gov. Romney try to attract swing-state voters, including some in coalfield communities of Ohio and Virginia.

First, under the headline Mine safety absent from presidential campaign’s coal debate, we explained:

When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tours the coalfields in the swing states of Ohio and Virginia, he promises to reverse Obama administration environmental regulations the industry says are costing miners their jobs.

But miners seldom hear that a Romney administration is also likely to abandon new rules and reduce safety enforcement meant to protect their lives.

As part of his campaign, the Republican nominee has embraced changes in federal practices that would block new worker safety and health standards.

Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, is among the GOP House leadership that has for two years blocked a coal-mine safety reform bill and threatened to end Obama efforts to fight deadly black lung disease.

And Ryan authored a federal budget plan containing budget cuts that are severe enough that critics say they would gut U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration enforcement.

“When you hear these guys talking about over-regulation, they’re not just talking about environmental regulations,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union. “They’re talking about health and safety regulations.”

But we also pointed out:

Most mine safety watchdogs give Obama generally strong marks in many areas, but Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, says there’s one simple reason the president hasn’t campaigned on the issue.

“They’re hesitant to say anything, because they had the largest disaster in 40 years during their time in office,” McAteer said.

On April 5, 2010, a huge explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, killing 29 miners at the non-union operation.

Multiple investigation reports blamed the disaster on a deliberate effort by Massey to evade federal mine safety rules.

But the disaster also led to a long series of embarrassing disclosures about MSHA’s failure to take adequate enforcement measures at Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion.

In a second story, we pointed out:

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney promises that one of his first acts in office will be to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In his campaign for West Virginia governor, Republican Bill Maloney also bashes the law. So does GOP Senate candidate John Raese.

Seldom mentioned in the debate over health care, though, is that repealing the act would remove a major new provision of black lung law that has made it easier for disabled miners or their widows to get federal benefits for the deadly disease.

At issue is little-noticed language slipped into the health-care bill by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., to help with longstanding problems faced by miners and widows seeking black lung benefits.

“Repeal of the Affordable Care Act would strip away access to critically important benefits for miners with black lung and their widows,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers union.

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Black lung, Obamacare and the election

My friend Bill Bishop, who runs a great blog called The Daily Yonder, has written an important piece about the impact of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s plan (a move also endorsed by Republican gubernatorial and senate candidates here in West Virginia) to repeal Obamacare. Bill explains:

The most important law passed during the last four years for coal miners, however, may be one of the most unpopular in rural West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky. It’s the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare) and within that law are benefits coal miners have been seeking for the past 30 years.

Before he died in 2010, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia amended the Affordable Care Act to benefit coal miners. He inserted a provision saying that if a person had worked as an underground coal miner for at least 15 years and suffered from the effects of pneumoconiosis (black lung), the presumption would be that coal dust caused the ailment. And the coal miner would be entitled to benefits.

Previously, coal miners had to prove that their lung problems were caused by coal dust. X-rays would be taken of ailing lungs and doctors would try to discern if coal dust were the cause. Because coal companies would appeal judgments and it is hard to tell from an x-ray if damage has been done by smoking or coal dust, very few miners who applied for black lung benefits over the years received them.

Very few. Only about 15 percent of the miners who applied for benefits received them before the Affordable Care Act was passed.

Coal miners have been battling black lung for more than two generations. After marches and protests throughout the coalfields in 1968, Congress passed a law in 1969 that was supposed to put a stop to the disease. It also paid compensation to miners afflicted by black lung.

In the early 1980s, Congress ended the presumption that miners who worked underground and showed signs of black lung were sick due to coal dust. The reasoning was that new coal dust regulations had effectively ended black lung and that anyone who showed symptoms was suffering from something other than the effects of coal dust.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. Since 1969, 70,000 coal miners have died from black lung. Ten thousand have died in the last ten years.

The piece notes that Obama efforts to promulgate regulations to actually fight black lung have become stalled, and continues:

The real benefits coal miners have received have come from the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). More than 700 disabled coal miners or their surviving spouses are already receiving benefits under this new provision, according to Timothy MacDonnell, director of the Black Lung Clinic at Washington and Lee University School of Law.

Sen. Byrd died in 2010, just a few months after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law by President Obama. He lived long enough to see his black lung provision enacted.

Bill recalls Sen. Byrd’s incredible speech in which he warned the coal industry — and all of us — to “embrace the future“:

Byrd was 91 at the time and was revered in his home state of West Virginia. The speech was largely ignored.

Byrd was right, and continues to be right — both about the needs of those with black lung and the future of the coal industry. But his speech and his black lung provisions in “Obamacare” continue to be ignored.

According to one writer for Foreign Policy magazine, the outcome of this election “could come down to one thing: coal.” That doesn’t mean coal miners, however. Although both President Obama and Mitt Romney have pledged their support for coal, the issue of black lung — either its causes or compensation for those who contract the disease — has not arisen in this campaign.

GAO report supports MSHA black lung proposal

The much anticipated U.S. Government Accountability Office report on the Obama administration’s proposed rules aimed at ending black lung disease is due out today, and the preliminary findings indicate GAO’s review supports the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s effort.

For example, the GAO found:

Our evaluation of the reports MSHA used to support its proposal and the key scientific studies on which the reports were based shows that they support the conclusion that lowering the PEL from 2.0 mg/m3 to 1.0 mg/m3 would reduce miners’ risk of disease. The reports and key studies concluded that miners’ cumulative exposure to coal mine dust at the current PEL over their working lives places them at an increased risk of developing CWP, progressive massive fibrosis, and decreased lung function, among other adverse health outcomes.


To mitigate the limitations and biases in the data, the researchers took reasonable steps, such as using multiple x-ray specialists to reduce the risk of misclassifying disease and making adjustments to coal mine dust samples where bias was suspected.


In addition to addressing the limitations and biases in the data, researchers used appropriate analytical methods to conclude that lowering the existing PEL would decrease miners’ risk of developing black lung disease. For example, in addition to taking steps to precisely estimate a miner’s cumulative exposure, the researchers accounted for several factors in their analyses—such as the age of the miners, the carbon content of the coal (coal rank), and other factors known to be associated with the disease—to better estimate the effect of cumulative exposure to coal mine dust.


Further, the other studies we identified generally supported the conclusion that reducing the PEL would reduce miners’ risk of disease.

UPDATED: There’s a summary of the GAO report here and the full document is available here.

House GOP wants to keep block on black lung rules

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.

Language was released this morning for the Republican House leadership’s proposed budget for the next year for the Department of Labor, and there’s an interesting little tidbit stuck in there that says:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to continue the development of or to promulgate, administer, enforce, or otherwise implement the Lowering Miners’ Exposure to Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors regulation (Regulatory Identification Number 1219-AB64) being developed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the Department of Labor.

Not clear enough for you? Here’s what the House Appropriations Committee said in a news release:

The legislation also includes a prohibition on funding for MSHA to continue the development or the implementation of a coal mine dust regulation.

That’s right. The MSHA budget being proposed by the House GOP leaders would continue to block — for at least the 2013 budget year — the agency from finalizing landmark rules aimed at trying to end black lung, a deadly disease that’s on the rise again and has reached what experts call epidemic proportions among coal miners in parts of Central Appalachia. A House committee Democratic summary of the GOP proposal puts it this way, listing the MSHA language as one of a number of “highly controversial partisan riders”:

“Black Lung” Disease Prevention: Prohibition on any further work to develop or issue in final form proposed rules to better prevent “black lung” disease among coal miners.

As we’ve previously reported in the Gazette, the MSHA plan is already on hold at least through mid-August, when the U.S. Government Accountability Office is due to release a congressionally mandated review of the agency rulemaking. That Gazette story was part of a series of black lung articles that featured the results of a joint investigation by NPR News and the Center for Public Integrity that revealed the outrageous facts about black lung:

Incidence of the disease that steals the breath of coal miners doubled in the last decade, according to data analyzed by epidemiologist Scott Laney at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) … Cases of the worst stage of the disease have quadrupled since the 1980s in a triangular region of Appalachia stretching from eastern Kentucky through southern West Virginia and into southwestern Virginia.

Black lung experts and mine safety advocates have warned of the resurgence of the disease since 1995. New reporting by CPI and NPR reveals the extent to which federal regulators and the mining industry failed to protect coal miners in the intervening years.

An analysis of federal data by CPI and NPR also shows that the mining industry and federal regulators have known for more than two decades that coal miners were breathing excessive amounts of the coal mine dust that causes black lung. CPI and NPR also found that the system for controlling coal mine dust is plagued by weak regulations and inaccurate reporting that sometimes includes fraud.

“This is clearly a public health epidemic,” Laney says. “This is a rare disease that should not be occurring. It’s occurring at a high proportion of individuals who are being exposed.”

UPDATED:  Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, issued this statement:

“House Republicans’ proposal to stop modern protections against black lung disease for our nation’s miners is outrageous and should be defeated.

 “Republicans are sending a message that profits for their wealthy campaign contributors are more important than the lungs and lives of America’s coal miners. The recent investigative report by several news organizations on the devastating impact of black lung and the lengths that some mine operations go to circumvent their responsibility to protect miners should have been a wakeup call. It’s clear that voices wealthier than coal miner families drowned out that message. 

 “The facts are indisputable – black lung is on the rise again and some mine operators are exploiting loopholes in obsolete rules to evade compliance. The present system is badly broken and improvements are desperately needed. It’s time to move forward on modern protections based on years of careful scientific study. Blocking efforts by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to modernize miner protections will only cost lives, careers, and family income for those who go underground every day.”


Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., issued this statement:

It’s outrageous that House Republicans are trying to stop MSHA from doing its job: protecting miners. New regulations to fight black lung are essential – especially when we know that black lung rates are rising in a new generation of miners. Last year, the House demanded a temporary delay of these protections for miners – and now they want to block them altogether. There is no greater priority for me than the health and safety of coal miners.”

Black lung is back: Where is the outrage?

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.

Earlier this week, when I heard that Sen. Joe Manchin was heading to the floor for what his office said would be an important speech, I thought for a moment that perhaps the West Virginia Democrat was going to talk about black lung disease.

After all Sen. Manchin is forever going on about how much he cares about coal miners, about the important work they do for our nation, about how miners like the men he knew growing up in Marion County are the “salt of the earth” and deserve better than to have their jobs disappear because of what coalfield political leaders insist is a “war on coal” by President Obama.

But no, we didn’t hear a word from Sen. Manchin this week about black lung disease. His floor speech on Wednesday was a rather bizarre rant that blamed continue power outages in West Virginia following the “derecho” thunderstorm on Obama administration investments in building infrastructure in Afghanistan.

Then again, no one else in any position of authority in our nation’s coalfields had much to say this week about black lung, despite the shameful findings of a joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR News (with additional reporting by yours truly for the Gazette).  Here’s the bottom line from the reporting, as explained by CPI’s Chris Hamby:

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 often have neglected to enforce even these porous rules. Again and again, attempts at reform have failed.

A Center analysis of databases maintained by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration found that miners have been breathing too much dust for years, but MSHA has issued relatively few violations and routinely allowed companies extra time to fix problems.

Now if there were an announcement or even the smallest bit of news that even smelled a little bit like something that might cost the region even one coal-mining job, political leaders would be falling all over themselves to attack President Obama, criticize environmental regulations, and declare their intention to do whatever it takes to protect miners’ jobs. But what about an epidemic of a disease that is completely preventable? Hardly a word.

As best I can tell, the first — and one of the only — politicians to have any response to the black lung stories was Sue Thorn, the Democrat who is challenging GOP Rep. David McKinley in West Virginia’s 1st congressional district. Her statement said, in part:

Black lung is a torturous disease that causes prolonged suffering and a painful demise for those afflicted by it. The systems set up to protect our miners have failed because federal lawmakers refuse to toughen 1969 coal dust standards. As politicians in the pockets of coal companies continue to play politics with people’s lives and spout talking points about “job-killing” federal regulation, our miners are the ones suffering and dying. In Congress, I will never put corporate profits and campaign contributions before people.

Continue reading…

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.

Continue reading…

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.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported this weekend:

Long linked to underground coal mining, black-lung disease also strikes miners who work above ground … Those are the findings of a new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first assessment in a decade of black-lung disease in surface miners.

It found that 46 of 2,257 surface miners tested during 2010-11 had black lung, meaning roughly 2 percent had the potentially deadly respiratory condition caused by inhaling coal dust. Twelve had the most severe form, and the majority never worked underground.

The story continued:

And black lung was much more prevalent among surface miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia than those in other coal-mining states studied — with 31 of the 46 cases from the three Central Appalachian states.That works out to 3.7 percent of the Central Appalachian miners, compared with 2 percent of all surface miners and about 3.2 percent of underground coal miners nationally.

 You can read the CDC report for yourself here, and of course this is an issue the Courier-Journal has told us about before, especially in its 1998 series on black lung.

MSHA moving ahead with unenforceable dust rule

Despite legislation that prohibits it from being enforced — at least until the GAO completes a report on the proposal — the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has quietly announced plans to finalize its new rules aimed at ending black lung disease.

A new Labor Department regulatory schedule, posted on the Internet, but not publicly announced by the agency, lists a date for publication of the final rule as April 2012.  I asked MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere about it, and she said in an email:

The rider does not restrict MSHA’s ability to promulgate the rule, only MSHA’s ability to implement or enforce the rule.

House GOP tries to end effort to ‘End Black Lung’

UPDATED: As we reported in Saturday’s Gazette-Mail, this little rider made it into the spending bill …

We’ve heard House Republicans talk quite a bit about how much they care about coal miners’ jobs … but what about those coal miners’ lives?

You have to wonder, when you see the GOP leadership sticking riders into appropriations bills like this one, described in a summary of a funding bill for the Department of Labor:

A prohibition on the implementation or enforcement of DOL’s “coal dust” rule until an independent assessment of the integrity of the data and methodology behind the rule is conducted.

That’s right, the majority party’s proposal for funding MSHA (see pages 35-36) would keep the agency from implementing the key provision of its campaign to End Black Lung, a deadly disease that claimed the lives of 10,000 coal miners in the last decade.

The GOP legislation would block MSHA from instituting a tougher coal-dust standard until the U.S. Government Accountability Office “evaluates the completeness of MSHA’s data collection and sampling, to include an analysis of whether such data supports current trends of the incidence of lung disease arising from occupational exposure to respirable coal mine dust across working underground coal miners.”

Never mind the peer-reviewed studies that show a resurgence of black lung in parts of the nation’s coalfields.  Never mind the data showing that miners working under what are currently legal levels of coal dust are developing black lung. And forget about the fact that public health and worker health experts have for years been urging MSHA to do exactly what agency chief Joe Main is trying to do — tighten the legal limit for coal dust.

I don’t know if there’s a war on coal, but you have to wonder if there’s really  a war on coal miners.

What about the war on coal miners?

We continue to hear an awful lot about the Obama administration’s supposed “war on coal,” with op-eds coming out now and again by various local business boosters, repeating the same rhetoric over and over.

What I keep wondering is when are any of these big defenders of coal miners going to start defending coal miners’ health and safety, and not just their right to have a job that threatens to put them into an early grave. Once again this week, it took a congressman from California to stand up in the House chamber and call for passage of mine safety reform legislation, and to question whether Alpha Natural Resources is headed on such issues.

It reminded me of a recent post from our friend Celeste Monforton over at The Pump Handle blog, about efforts in Congress to stop the Obama administration from trying to end black lung disease:

It’s too late for Ronald Martin of Dema, Kentucky. “I’m in last stage of black lung,” he wrote in shaky script, “please help the miners so they won’t suffer like I suffer. I can’t breathe but a little.” Mr. Martin sent his note to the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to comment on the agency’s proposed rule to reduce workers’ exposure to respirable coal mine dust—the dust that damaged his lungs so severely. Other coal miners also sent their comments to MSHA, urging the agency to put a more protective regulation in place as soon as possible to prevent younger miners from developing black lung disease.

The major US coal mining companies, in contrast, strongly object to MSHA’s proposed rule. In their written comments and public testimony they use all the stale, typical terms to criticize the rule, saying it’s flawed, counterproductive, arbitrary, and irrational. They tell MSHA to withdraw the proposal, but still insist they have miners’ interests in mind and are dedicated to providing safe working conditions.

Celeste singled out the industry’s supposed push for use of personal dust monitors:

The coal industry’s hypocrisy is especially apparent when it comes to the proposal’s provisions concerning a specially-designed continuous respirable dust monitor. This 6-pound device can be worn by a mine worker to provide him with a continuous readout of his cumulative average exposure to respirable coal dust. Development of the device dates back at least 30 years, and coal mine operators have insisted in nearly as many years that any new regulation had to incorporate this technology. That was their story and they were sticking with it.

But wait:

Now that the device is proven reliable, accurate and mine worthy—-and more than 270 have been sold commercially—-the mining industry is fighting MSHA’s plan to incorporate them in its regulation. Murray Energy’s Robert Murray said the devices are “unproven, unreliable, subject to tampering, and fail to protect miners.” Anthony Bumbico of Arch Coal raised a number of objections to the devices, called continuous personal dust monitors (CPDM), saying

“it is not ready to be deployed for compliance purposes. Nor is it ready for daily exposure to the rugged working conditions present in underground coal mines.”

Mr. Bumbico’s plan is really bold:

“…to work together to develop the next generation of the CPDM.”

Read the whole post here.


Labor Department wins Byrd black lung rule case

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., questions panel members on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2010, during the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

This just in from the Department of Labor:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs has successfully defended a recent amendment to the Black Lung Benefits Act contained in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit held in “B & G Construction Co. v. Campbell and Director, Office of Workers’ Comp. Programs” that the amendment is constitutional and provides benefits to certain survivors of miners who were entitled to benefits at the time of their deaths.

“This ruling supports our administration of the Byrd amendments in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,” said OWCP Acting Director Gary A. Steinberg. “We are committed to providing the benefits that claimants are entitled to under the law — benefits that so many workers and families depend on when black lung has taken away their health and livelihoods.”

The Black Lung Benefits Act provides compensation to miners totally disabled by pneumoconiosis, commonly called black lung disease, and their eligible survivors. From 1982 until the PPACA amendment was enacted on March 23, 2010, a survivor, usually the miner’s spouse, had to prove that pneumoconiosis caused the miner’s death to be entitled to benefits, even if the miner was receiving benefits when he died. But the 3rd Circuit held that the PPACA amendment automatically continues benefits to a miner’s eligible survivors if the miner was entitled to benefits prior to death. The court rejected B & G’s contention that the amendment is unconstitutional under the due process and takings clauses of the Fifth Amendment.

The amendment applies to claims filed after Jan. 1, 2005, that were pending on or after March 23, 2010. In this case, the deceased miner had worked for B & G for more than 16 years. Because the miner was totally disabled due to pneumoconiosis, he received disability benefits until his death in 2005. Under the PPACA amendment, the court ruled that his surviving spouse is automatically entitled to continuing benefits.

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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.

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MSHA extends comment period on dust rule

This just in from MSHA:

ARLINGTON, Va. – The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced that it has extended the comment period on the proposed rule “Lowering Miners’ Exposure to Respirable Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors.” In response to requests from interested parties, the comment period, which originally was to end May 2, has been extended until May 31.

“Our goal to end black lung is a long-standing one and was one of the commitments I made when I came to MSHA,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “Not surprisingly, there has been an overwhelming response to this proposed rule. The additional time hopefully will give everyone who wants to comment the opportunity to do so.”

All comments must be received or postmarked by midnight EDT on May 31. They must be marked “RIN 1219-AB64” and may be sent to MSHA electronically through; by fax to 202-693-9441; by mail to MSHA, Office of Standards, Regulations and Variances, 1100 Wilson Blvd., Room 2350, Arlington, VA 22209-3939; or hand delivered to the same address. For hand delivery, sign in at the receptionist’s desk on the 21st floor.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has gotten a bit of attention lately for his statements that there’s no need for tougher federal coal-dust regulations because, the good senator claims, the coal industry has already done “a pretty good job” of reducing the incidence of black lung.

But a soon-to-be published study by researchers at West Virginia University shows how wrong Sen. Paul is. The study, due out soon in the peer-reviewed journal Chest, concludes:

Contemporary occupational dust exposures have resulted over the last decade in rapidly progressive pneumoconiosis and massive fibrosis in relatively young West Virginia coal miners, leading to important lung dysfunction and premature death.

Translation? Coal miners who are working in dust levels that are currently legal in this country are contracting and dying from serious lung diseases caused by their exposure to those legal levels of coal dust.

Longtime black lung doctor Edward L. Petsonk discussed his latest study (which he authored with W. Alex Wade and others) yesterday at the Wheeling Jesuit University 4th Annual International Mining Health and Safety Symposium here in Charleston.

According to the publicly available abstract, and Dr. Petsonk’s presentation yesterday, the study looked at 138 miners with progressive massive fibrosis whose claimed were approved by the West Virginia State Occupational Pneumoconiosis Board between January 2000 and December 2009. Researchers found:

Progressive massive fibrosis (PMF), a complication of CWP, developed in 138 West Virginia coal miners at a mean age of 52.6 years after an average of 30 years work tenure. The time of progression averaged 12.2 years from the last normal chest film until PMF was detected.

Lung function declined sharply in both smokers and nonsmokers … The Board has confirmed 21 deaths in this group. The most common job activities were operating continuous mining machines (41%) and roof bolting (19%). Virtually all of these miners’ dust exposures occurred after the implementation of current Federal dust regulations.

As we’ve reported before, Dr. Petsonk is among the public health professionals who have supported the Obama administration’s effort to end black lung disease, which is on the rise after years of decline following passage of the 1969 law.

After discussing his new study, he reminded those of us attending the Wheeling Jesuit Symposium that black lung hasn’t gone away:

It’s still happening. There is a problem with miners’ health, and it is a current problem. This is no longer something that we can just sit on our hands about.

Yesterday morning, MSHA chief Joe Main was on the phone with news reporters, touting his agency’s ambitious and aggressive new regulatory agenda.

The event was part of a broader public relations effort by the Obama administration’s Department of Labor, with Web chats and telephone conference calls about the agency’s regulatory initiatives. As former MSHA and OSHA staffer Celeste Monforton has written on The Pump Handle blog:

… These plans quickly become stale because target dates are missed, new issues emerge and political winds shift, but they still give us a snapshot inside the agencies and the Administration’s regulatory strategies at a moment in time.

With that in mind, it’s particularly interesting to look at the MSHA regulatory agenda’s entry regarding what arguably is the most important mine safety and health issue facing the nation’s coalfields: The rule titled, Lowering Miners’ Exposure to Coal Mine Dust, Including Continuous Personal Dust Monitors.

MSHA proposed the rule back in October, already nearly a year after officially kicking off its “End Black Lung: Act Now!” program. Remember that black lung has killed roughly 10,000 miners in the last decade, and public health advocates — including NIOSH and a Labor Department advisory panel — were advocating a tightening of the dust standard back in the mid-1990s. And, of course, the Obama administration went through months of a song-and-dance over whether they would actually follow those long-standing recommendations when they finally proposed their rule.

So now, with public hearings scheduled this month and next, what’s MSHA’s new regulatory agenda say about its next steps toward getting this rule finalized?

Post hearing comment period end: 2/28/2011

That’s it. No deadline for when the agency plans to issue a final rule.

So during a conference call with Joe Main and his regulatory chief, Patricia Silvey, I asked about that …

Pat Silvey kindly explained that this was MSHA’s semi-annual regulatory agenda. It’s a six-month-out look at what the agency has planned, she said, adding:

That’s what we’re here to talk about … we do not project further than that … we cannot project any further than that at this time.

OK. Well, if that’s the case, then it’s obvious I guess that MSHA doesn’t plan to finalize the coal-dust limits anytime in the next six months.

But when I looked at other items on MSHA’s agenda, agency officials in fact did project out beyond that six-month time frame. For example, the regulatory proposal concerning metal and nonmetal dams projects that MSHA will finish analyzing public comments in September 2011. Or, an item concerning approval of electrical products for use in mines is listed as having a proposed rule scheduled for publication in August 2012.

And in fact, the Federal Register notice outlining what Department of Labor agencies are supposed to include in their regulatory agendas says this:

Executive Order 12866 requires the semiannual publication of an agenda of regulations that contains a listing of all the regulations the Department of Labor expects to have under active consideration for promulgation, proposal, or review during the coming one-year period.

So, I’m not really sure what Pat Silvey and Joe Main were getting at with this thing about only projecting out six months in MSHA’s regulatory agenda. I asked the agency for a more complete explanation, but I haven’t heard anything back yet.

I would like to know — and coal miners would probably like to know — when MSHA expects to put in place the tougher coal-dust limits that experts say are needed to protect workers from this deadly disease.

Industry pans Obama plan to end black lung

Today is the first public hearing on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s proposal to tighten the legal limit on coal dust as part of the Obama administration’s plan to end black lung disease.

Here’s the early report from the AP, whose Tim Huber attended the hearing held at the MSHA Academy outside Beckley:

The West Virginia Coal Association wants federal regulators to rewrite proposed regulations that would place stricter limits on coal dust exposure.

Lobbyist Chris Hamilton told a regulatory panel Tuesday the changes would cost far more than expected and are based on unproven science, among other things.

Others addressing the Mine Safety and Health Administration panel urged adoption of the changes as a step toward eradicating black lung disease, which is caused by inhaling dust.

The hearing at MSHA’s mine academy in Beaver is the first of seven planned across the country.

The proposal would cut by half existing limits for breathable dust in coal mines, among other things. The disease has plagued miners for generations and is blamed for more than 10,000 deaths in the past decade.

Recall that government agencies and advisory panels have been advocating a tighter dust standard for years, the MSHA proposal has the “full support” of the United Mine Workers union, and has been widely praised by worker health advocates and black lung experts.