According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), incidents of severe black lung disease among America’s coal miners were on the rise last year, especially in central Appalachia. In fact, 10% of coal miners who have worked in mines for at least 25 years were identified as having black lung which is up from previous estimates of 7%. A recently released NPR and PBS Frontline investigation (we highly recommend you watch this film) into the surge in cases of black lung disease focused on the fact that regulators hadn’t looked at their own data closely enough to realize that miners needed better protection from toxic silica dust which was more prevalent as a result of current mining techniques. After NPR reported that thousands of miners in central Appalachia are sick with the most serious form of the disease, a coalition of black lung clinics is calling for action to better protect coal miners from dust exposure.
WKMS reported that the National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics said in a recent statement that the federal government has “more than enough data demonstrating the risks associated with current mining practices to implement new measures.” Specifically, the Coalition asks regulators to enact a standard to control the dust generated when mining equipment cuts into rock containing silica, or quartz. But in a recent call with mining industry stakeholders, the government’s top mine safety and health regulator, David Zatezalo, said he would have “no announcements” on any new measures to control dust or to address lung disease among miners. As Frontline explained, the regulatory system that is supposed to protect coal miners from exposure to toxic silica dust failed to prevent dangerous exposures more than 21,000 times since 1986, according to data collected by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and analyzed by NPR/FRONTLINE. And while the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) counted 115 cases of advanced black lung nationwide through its monitoring program from 2010 to 2018, NPR and FRONTLINE identified more than 2,300 cases by contacting health clinics across Appalachia.
Why This Matters: Regardless of how you view the argument that our country should rapidly transition to a low-carbon energy mix, we cannot ignore sick coal miners who have devoted their lives to providing reliable and affordable energy for millions of Americans. If political leaders are going to make the case that renewable energy advocates are forgetting about coal miners then they need to put their money where their mouth is and support legislative action to help miners, like the Black Lung Excise tax which Congress did not act to extend last Dec. 31st after a concerted lobbying effort from the coal industry to let the tax expire. As Roll Call reported, the tax and the trust fund that helps pay for the health and living benefits of sick coal workers whose employers have gone bankrupt is a critical lifeline for sick miners and their families.