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Vol. 75/No. 21      May 30, 2011

Black lung disease on
rise among coal miners
Black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, a preventable disease, is on the rise among coal miners. This is the conclusion of a West Virginia University study that states, “Contemporary occupational dust exposures have resulted over the last decade in rapidly progressive pneumoconiosis and massive fibrosis in relatively young West Virginia coal miners, leading to important lung dysfunction and premature death.”

Since the mid-1980s more than 21,000 miners have died from black lung. Water spraying and proper ventilation can greatly diminish respirable dust levels.

Figures from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show the spike in black lung cases is concentrated particularly in the central Appalachian region of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and western Virginia.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued 20 withdrawal orders and five citations to the Massey Energy-owned Randolph Mine in Boone County, West Virginia, May 3 after inspectors found major violations of federal regulations on dust levels, ventilation, and proper operation of machinery, conditions that threaten an explosion and pose the danger of workers developing black lung.

Massey is also the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, where 29 workers died in an explosion in April 2010, the worst U.S. mining disaster in 40 years. The disaster shone a spotlight on deteriorating safety conditions in the mines as bosses drive to maximize productivity and profits.

Several months later, under pressure from miners and black lung advocates, MSHA proposed new regulations that would cut in half the exposure limit of coal dust in mines. But the regulations have never been implemented.

Jeff Marsh, a coal miner at the Cumberland Mine in southwestern Pennsylvania, told the Militant, “The reason why the black lung rate is picking up is that you have fewer union mines now.”

The Cumberland Mine is organized by United Mine Workers of America Local 2300. “We fight for safety,” Marsh said. “We tell the boss ‘You’ve got to get more air up there by the face or we’re not going up there.’ We take the steps that keep the dust down.”

Debbie Wills, who is active in the National Black Lung Association in West Virginia, told the Militant that miners today are being exposed to coal dust at double the rate of the 1970s and ’80s. “Twice as many cases are showing up in NIOSH’s X-ray surveillance program,” she said.

“Many miners are being forced to work 10- to 12-hour days, six to seven days a week,” Wills said. “The previous MSHA standard was based on an eight-hour day, 40-hour week when most mines were unionized.”
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