Tombstones instead of monuments: black lung is back
From today’s New York Times:
Federal investigators this month identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung cases ever officially recorded.
More than 400 coal miners frequenting three clinics in southwestern Virginia between 2013 and 2017 were found to have complicated black lung disease, an extreme form characterized by dense masses of scar tissue in the lungs.
The cluster, identified following an investigation by National Public Radio, adds to a growing body of evidence that a new black lung epidemic is emerging in central Appalachia, even as the Trump administration begins to review Obama-era coal dust limits.
Scientists note the reasons for the increase:
Scientists have linked the new wave of lung disease to miners breathing in more silica dust, the likely result of a decades-long shift toward mining thinner coal seams that require cutting into the surrounding rock. Silica dust from pulverized rock can damage lungs faster than coal dust alone.
Modern machinery, insufficient training for workers, and longer work hours may also contribute to increased dust exposure, experts say.
The NPR black lung investigation quotes Ron Carson, the director of Stone Mountain's black lung program, who argues that this is a slow motion mining disaster:
"Mining disasters get monuments," Carson says, his voice softening. "Black lung deaths get tombstones. And I've seen many a tombstone in [the last] 28 years from black lung. And I'm seeing more now. A lot more now."
(Note -- see also "Why Black Lung Disease Is Deadlier Than Ever Before" in the Smithsonian.)
Can anything be done? Not with the foxes overseeing the hen house
As the National Safety Council documents, the former coal company owner and current head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, David Zatezalo, has not committed to doing anything about this dramatic increase in black lung disease:
The Mine Safety and Health Administration has no immediate plans to change its regulation on respirable dust in coal mines, MSHA administrator David Zatezalo said Feb. 6 during a hearing before the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee.
Note -- Zatezalo is probably the best example of the Trump administration’s hiring policy of placing former mine owners and officials in charge of mine safety. CNN recently described yet another Trump nominee who fits that description:
President Donald Trump's nominee to chair the independent agency tasked with adjudicating mine safety cases is a lawyer who has defended coal companies with safety violations.
Marco Rajkovich was nominated in January to chair the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, an independent board responsible for deciding cases under the Mine Act of 1977.
Prior to his nomination, Rajkovich worked in Kentucky representing coal companies and argued cases before the commission he is nominated to serve on, according to his online biography.
A CNN review has shed new light on Rajkovich's work on behalf of the mining industry, including his representation of a company accused of violating code by trying to thwart federal inspections.
For the Trump administration, who could better judge mine safety than a former company lawyer?
Charlie May, writing in Salon explains the “why” of all of this:
In his pie in the sky pledge to bring the coal industry back to life, put miners back to work and massively produce "clean coal" Trump has utterly failed to acknowledge the health ramifications felt by the American workers he has championed. That's because his outlandish promises have always been intended for fossil fuel corporations, not its workers.
The editorial response: a tale of two cities
The Trump administration’s reaction to the increase in black lung has not gone unnoticed by some newspapers in coal country. Here, for example, is an editorial from the Lexington Herald Leader earlier this month:
Coal bosses ran the union out of Eastern Kentucky a long time ago, but the unsafe working conditions that fueled the labor movement persist, as a Feb. 6 research letter in the Journal of the American Medical Association makes clear. The largest cluster ever reported of advanced black lung, also known as progressive massive fibrosis, was confirmed in an area that includes southeastern Kentucky. PMF was confirmed in 416 miners; that does not include those diagnosed in the last year. . . .
Trump counts miners among his most loyal voters. But the administration is easing off enforcing coal industry regulations, which guarantees that miners will be working in dangerous levels of dust. . . .
This country owes our coal miners more than presidential lip service.
Compare that with the absence of editorial comment by Ogden “newspapers” on the February black lung findings. A search on their website, however, does yield a December 18 editorial in the Wheeling Intelligencer:
In some areas, black lung is making a comeback, despite decades of regulations meant to curb it. . . . .
MSHA officials should take a look at mining regulations. Some of them may be unduly burdensome to the industry, while contributing nothing to the health and safety of miners.
But any examination should be science-based, starting with no preconceived notions.
That could lead to better ways to safeguard miners — and, let us not forget, their families — from the dangers inherent in digging coal for a living.