At a time when the coal industry is being promised less regulation, the resurgence of black lung among Kentucky coal miners is even worse than previously thought.
A federal epidemiologist recently said that Pike County is “the epicenter of one of the largest industrial medicine disasters that the United States has ever seen.” Dr. Scott Laney, who spoke recently to medical students at Pikeville University, co-authored a study published last December that identified a large cluster of the most severe form of black lung, known as progressive massive fibrosis, in Southeastern Kentucky.
Laney works for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which was alerted to the cluster by a Kentucky radiologist who diagnosed 60 cases in 20 months in Floyd, Knott, Letcher and Pike counties. By comparison, just 31 cases of progressive massive fibrosis were identified nationally from 1990 to 1999.
The rate of black lung among coal miners with at least 25 years underground in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia is at an all-time high. About 1 in 20 will develop severe black lung compared with 1 in 30 in 1970.
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Exposure to dust generated by mining causes black lung. Experts think that as miners must cut through more rock to reach ever thinner coal seams in Appalachia, they are exposed to more quartz dust, or silica, in addition to coal dust, and that this, in part, explains the disease’s upsurge.
Prevention — by controlling dust through ventilation and other means — is the best way to combat the disease. History tells us that, if left to its own devices, the industry will scrimp on dust control.
President Donald Trump, who promised to protect miner’s jobs, has signed an order that will make it harder to protect their lives by requiring that for every new rule, two existing rules must be identified for elimination. An update of the rule on silica exposure would have to be offset by, say, getting rid of precautions against explosions or roof falls.
In Kentucky, lawmakers recently reduced required mine inspections, opting instead for “safety analysis.” With fewer inspections, there’s less likelihood a mine will be cited for violating its ventilation plan and allowing excessive dust.
Also, on the session’s last day, Senate President Robert Stivers pushed through legislation ending payments by coal companies into a fund to help cover state workers compensation claims for black lung. The assessment, augmented by coal severance tax, was enacted in 1996 because black-lung claims had raised workers comp costs for all Kentucky employers to crisis levels.
The assessment on coal companies more than tripled this year, due in part to a black-lung claim backlog; lawmakers, seeking to ease the burden on struggling coal companies, reversed that assessment. Kentucky employers are being assured that this time black-lung costs will be borne entirely by the coal industry.
The burden of black lung is really borne by miners and their families who are helpless to ease the slow suffocation caused by a preventable disease that is surging even as the coal industry has declined.