If you wonder why black lung disease is not just still killing coal miners but also making a roaring comeback, consider the criminal indictments announced in Owensboro on Wednesday.
A now bankrupt coal company and eight of its managers conspired to cheat on dust monitoring tests and lied about the results in violation of federal law, according to the charges.
Why did they cheat when they knew miners would be inhaling dangerous levels of the dust that causes black lung? Money, of course.
By cheating, Armstrong Coal Co. avoided the cost of installing proper ventilation and other dust controls, saving money at the expense of miners' health, and also gaining a competitive edge over coal operators who do follow the rules.
Sadly, skimping on dust control is an old story in the coalfields of Kentucky, both east and west. So is putting profits above the health and safety of workers and residents.
The indictments, which list the coal company as an unindicted co-conspirator, cover instances of fraudulent dust testing from 2013 to 2015. The investigation, which began when a whistleblower reported violations to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, spans two presidential administrations.
U.S. Attorney Russell M. Coleman said he announced the charges at a coal-mining exhibit at Owensboro's Museum of Science and Health as a message of deterrence and also to encourage miners to report unsafe conditions.
The alleged violations occurred at underground mines in Muhlenberg and Ohio counties in Western Kentucky, including a mine that's still operating under new ownership.
Coleman said the investigation is ongoing and more defendants could be charged.
The violations carry penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. Stiff punishments, but, then, black lung is a death sentence.
Formally known as coal miner's pneumoconiosis, black lung can't be cured short of a lung transplant, but it can be prevented. The disease had steeply declined in the 1990s. But Eastern Kentucky and mining areas in West Virginia and Virginia are experiencing a resurgence of the most severe form of black lung, according to federal health officials, even as the coal industry has declined.
Kudos to the U.S. Attorney's office, MSHA and the U.S. Department of Labor for issuing this clear reminder that coal miners' lives matter.