The country’s 130,000 miners are not strangers to dangerous working conditions, faulty equipment and air filled with coal dust and other hazardous inhalants. While the accident at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, W.Va., that recently killed 25 miners received international attention, thousands of miners are dying more quietly.
As the demand for coal increases in the face of America’s swelling energy consumption, coalminers are rapidly falling victim to black lung disease, a direct result of the toxic air they endure day in and out. In fact, while most Americans equate black lung with 1930s depression-era images, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), black lung disease or advanced pneumoconiosis has caused more than 10,000 deaths during the past decade. Since 1995, the prevalence of black lung has doubled among those who participated in the Coal Worker’s Health Surveillance Program of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Atlanta, Ga., and who have been coal miners for more than 20 years.
Also, miners are suffering at a younger age, with some as young as 39 showing advanced cases of the disease, according to NIOSH.
And while there are 28 black lung trusts under Section 501(c) of the federal Tax Code, a search of federal Form 990s by The NonProfit Times showed contact information made most of them almost impossible to contact.
NIOSH runs a mobile health screening program and travels to coal mining regions throughout the U.S. that are considered to be hot spots for disease under its Enhanced Coal Workers Surveillance Program, which was started in 2006. Anita Wolfe, public health analyst for the Morgantown, W.Va., branch of NIOSH said the surveillance programs see 5,000 miners yearly, and it is required by law that coal operators offer lung screenings to their employees. It is up to the miners, however, to have the screenings done.
“We are seeing disease in younger miners earlier than we thought,” Wolfe said. “There has been a myth out there that black lung doesn’t occur anymore, because the mines are more automated and less dusty. We have yet to dispel that myth among miners, but it’s just not true.”
The screening programs are funded entirely by NIOSH, Wolfe said. The enhanced program gets $639,000 yearly and the regular screening program is budgeted $350,000 per year. Wolfe admits the funding is not where it should be for the amount of work the programs are doing. Miners are given respirators to wear to cut down the amount of dust they inhale on the job, but these are not the best protections against black lung, she said.
“The first line of defense is keeping the dust levels in the mine to the standards that are set,” Wolfe said. “The way you develop black lung is pure and simple — it is from breathing in dust. Obviously, they are getting too much dust. The amount of disease we are seeing is ridiculous; we are seeing it at a degree we never thought we would see again in the coal mines.”
Mines are inspected quarterly, Wolfe said, and miners are not required by law to wear the respirators. Some complain the equipment is cumbersome and makes communication in the mine difficult. However, if a miner requests a respirator, the coal operator is required to provide one. Operators are also supposed to keep ventilation flowing throughout the mine, and use water sprays to keep coal wet and decrease dust levels.
Melissa Grimm, secretary of the National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Clinics, based in Martins Ferry, Ohio, said the uptick in the disease could be attributed to the increased demand for coal, as well as longer working hours and unsafe working conditions.
“The energy crisis has soared, and coal operators have boosted production,” Grimm said. “They are reopening previously closed mines, or smaller mines that may not be associated with a union. Some operators just don’t show concern for safety and air quality.”
Miners are also breathing in silica, which is in the coal they are cutting through, Grimm said. It is more toxic to their systems than the coal dust. Younger miners are showing aggressive black lung cases, she said, which is especially troubling. “They began working after new standards were set, and it is progressing worse in them than in the older guys,” Grimm said. “There’s not something medically we can tie down to it either.”
Sparkle Bonds, staff manager at the Virginia Black Lung Association, said many miners are working for not only longer hours, but for more days in a row, and employers are not necessarily enforcing safety regulations. “Employers were not enforcing the proper ventilation on site,” Bonds said. “It is only performed when an inspector would appear.”
While the Richlands, Va.-based charity represents mainly retired coal miners, Bonds said it provides educational opportunities, respiratory clinics and pulmonary rehabilitation for those who are still employed in the coal mining industry. Last year, she said between $4,000 and $5,000 was spent on educating the community on the impact of black lung.
“We have to give a voice to those who are working and concerned,” Bonds said. “Our workers can’t speak up, because they are afraid to lose their jobs.”
The National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Clinics has 20 clinic sites throughout the country from the Eastern coalfields in Pennsylvania, along the Appalachian Mountains and to New Mexico and Colorado, Grimm said. They see more than 30,000 active and retired miners yearly and provide breathing tests, EKGs, physicals with pulmonologists and treatment and pulmonary rehabilitation for those who qualify.
The coalition celebrated its 30th anniversary this past September and 15 of its grantees are funded through 2012 via a $7.2 million grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration. Grimm said the coalition has to reapply for grants every two years, and the increased need for treatment does not necessarily mean funding increases as a result.
Lobbying and education remain at the heart of the coalition’s mission, Grimm said, adding that the organization partnered with NIOSH to reach out to miners and provide the resources they need to learn how to protect themselves. Grimm said each February coalition members travel to Washington, D.C. to educate federal representatives and attempt to garner support for their clinics.
“There’s not much we can do with the coal operators,” she said. “That’s the government’s role. We try to do our best to make sure the miners are taking care of themselves.”
Some miners do have access to personal dust monitors, however, they can cost upwards of $10,000 for coal companies to purchase and supply, and no law as of yet states they must be worn to protect workers. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is considering a set of laws that would require miners to wear them while working, so they can see how much dust they are inhaling and respond appropriately.
Grimm said the monitors are also cumbersome, and miners have some difficulty wearing them while working. “I don’t know that they can wear that apparatus for 10– or 12-hour shifts,” she said. “As much as I would like to say ‘You need to wear it and keep it on,’ in reality they are not comfortable.”
Grimm said a few miners treated in the coalition’s clinics have been faithful in wearing the monitors, and did show signs of better health than those who did not wear them. Bonds said she is hopeful that monitors will be available in more mines this summer, in response to the U.S. Department of Labor soliciting miner’s input on where they are most needed.
The monitors would help coal operators and supervisors to make smarter choices on site, Bonds said. “Miners can step back, and they or whoever is over them can make the decision if they need more air or water in the mines,” she said. “It would let them see what they are being exposed to, and see the need themselves. What we have seen is young men who were once healthy, and it takes awhile for some of them before they realize what’s going on.”
Some advances have been made in response to persistent lobbying and education on behalf of the nation’s miners. Grimm said the recently signed Healthcare Reform Act includes two black lung amendments to provide assistance to those suffering from the disease. In one amendment, the burden of proof is shifted from coal miner to coal operator, Grimm said.
In the past, it was up to the miner to prove the black lung disease was caused from coal dust to be able to receive benefits, which would be extremely costly for the miner, who would have to hire lawyers and health professionals. Today, if a miner has a 15-year history of mining, and it is presumed the miner’s black lung developed as a result, it is up to the coal operating companies to disprove the claims.
“For the first time, the burden of proof has been shifted, so it is easier for them to get their benefits,” she said.
Also, widows of miners will now have easier access to the benefits they had received when their husbands were still living. Before the amendment passed, a widow would typically have to begin all over again with her husband’s case, starting with a widow’s claim, despite receiving benefits for years. Grimm said even if a widow were to file a claim in the past, there was no guarantee she would receive benefits.
In the end, each miner needs to look out the person’s own welfare, Bonds said, and be cautious while doing their jobs. “If you are going to stay in the industry, you have to protect yourself, because no one else will,” she said. Miners who are granted benefits and who work for companies that are covered under the Federal Black Lung trust can access their benefits through that specific trust, Grimm said.
With the national spotlight placed again on miner safety due to the Upper Big Branch deaths, Wolfe said coal operators would be focused on ensuring the safety of their workers. “I think it varies, like any other business. You have good operators and bad operators,” she said. “Some want to do everything they can to keep their miners healthy, and then you have the other side of the coin.” Grimm said once investigations are complete to determine the exact cause of the explosion, which is believed to be methane gas build up, tighter regulations can hopefully be implemented.
“This is a very sad situation, and it is horrible that something bad has to happen before the spotlight is put on the importance of safety and regulations that are currently in place,” she said. “I hope that in light of this situation, future regulations will be put in place to prevent this from happening again.”