On May 14 William Payne, 25, was crushed while moving a roof-bolting machine at the Sugar Camp Energy complex in Thompsonville, Illinois — the second death at the mine in six months. Two days before, Eric Legg, 48, and Gary Hensley, 46, were killed at Patriot Coal Corp.’s Brody Mine No. 1 near Wharton, West Virginia, as a result of dangerous retreat mining operations to extract every last bit of coal from the remaining pillars of coal holding up the mine roof.
The three recent deaths bring the number of coal miner fatalities on the job so far this year to six — 18 when other miners are included.
These deaths are dwarfed by the number of miners with black lung disease, caused by inhaling coal and rock dust. New cases of the irreversible, debilitating and often fatal disease have doubled in the last decade, even as the number of miners has shrunk. Severe black lung is “like a screw being slowly tightened across your throat,” Dr. Edward Petsonk, who treats patients with the disease, told the Center for Public Integrity. “It is really almost a diabolical torture.”
The previous decline in prevalence of black lung was won through big union battles of the late 1960s and ’70s, including a three-week strike by tens of thousands of miners organized by the United Mine Workers union in West Virginia in 1969. In the face of the miners’ growing militancy and confidence, Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act that year, which established standards for dust limits and air flow.
Union miners and their safety committees enforced the regulations, at times by shutting down production. Incidents of black lung declined more than 90 percent from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. But an anti-labor offensive that has not been met by a corresponding fightback has reversed those gains and pushed back the union.
Today mining companies routinely take advantage of deliberate loopholes in the coal act’s provisions or ignore them altogether.
Between 1998 and 2008 black lung killed more than 10,000 miners, according to government figures. The number of miners with the most severe form of the disease has tripled since the 1980s.
“We’re seeing a very distinct increase in advanced cases that we hadn’t seen in quite a long time,” Donald Rasmussen, a doctor who runs a clinic in Beckley, West Virginia, that specializes in the disease, told the Militant in a phone interview May 19. “We began seeing this about 15 years ago and it’s been increasing in numbers since.”
“Mining machines have become more powerful. They can cut through rock,” Rasmussen said. In the process “this creates silica dust, which is more toxic than coal dust itself.”
“We’re seeing this disease rapidly progress among miners in their 40s,” Rasmussen said. “They’re too young to be developing this disease.”
Speedup and longer hours“By the time I was 40 years old, I had mined more coal than most miners have seen in a lifetime,” Mark McCowan, a miner diagnosed with severe black lung in 2005, told National Public Radio in a July 2012 interview. The mine companies brought in newer machinery, lengthened the workday and stretched the workweek to six or seven days.
Today just trying to mow the lawn or hold his grandson leaves him gasping for air, McCowan said.
In April the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced new rules, including lowering limits for coal mine dust from 2 milligrams of dust per cubic meter set in the 1969 coal act to 1.5 milligram. In deference to the coal bosses, the plan offers a two-year “phase-in” period, to take effect Aug. 1, 2016. The regulations also narrow some of the loopholes in accurately reporting dust levels.
“Coal dust level reductions should have been implemented 20 years ago,” said Rasmussen. “I don’t know that this new rule will change the level of silica. Some of us are less than optimistic.”
When MSHA first published the proposed rules in October 2010, it called for lowering dust levels by 50 percent to 1 milligram. But after coal bosses’ complaints that this could adversely affect production, the agency set it at 1.5 milligram.
The rule “requires immediate action when dust levels are high instead of allowing days or weeks of miners’ exposure to unhealthy dust,” said the Department of Labor in an April 23 news release. But it’s mine bosses who will “identify areas” to “prevent miners from being overexposed” under the rules — not the mine workers, their unions or their safety committees.
Meanwhile, a cap on federal health care funding is expected to cut funds to black lung clinics by 40 percent in the Appalachian coalfields of West Virginia, one of the main “hot spots” of the disease’s resurgence. This will affect the availability of medical care for some 8,500 coal miners diagnosed with the disease.
More than a dozen coal companies, including Murray Energy and Patriot Coal, filed suit in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati May 1 asking that the rule lowering dust limits be overturned. It’s “technologically and economically unachievable.” Murray Energy said in a statement in April.
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