July 9, 2012
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Anna Christopher, NPR


   

NPR NEWS INVESTIGATION REPORTS RESURGENCE OF BLACK LUNG IN COAL MINERS

NPR AND CENTER FOR PUBLIC INTEGRITY FIND INHERENT FAILURES IN PROTECTION FROM COAL MINE DUST, WEAK ENFORCEMENT BY REGULATORS

AIRING JULY 9 & 10; AVAILABLE AT NPR.ORG

An investigation by NPR News and the Center for Public Integrity, with additional reporting by the Charleston Gazette, has found a resurgence of black lung in coal miners, with diagnoses doubling in the last decade and cases of advance stages of the disease quadrupling since the 1980s in portions of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. NPR and CPI report that increased regulation – and near eradication of the disease – following a 1969 law gave way to systemic exploitation of coal dust measurement by mining companies, and weak enforcement by regulators. Federal data obtained by NPR and CPI indicates that thousands of coal miners were exposed to excessive levels of mine dust despite the strict limits established 40 years ago.

NPR rural affairs correspondent Howard Berkes is reporting these findings in two parts, today on All Things Considered and Tuesday on Morning Edition. Both reports, along with features detailing black lung and the work of miners, are available at NPR.org. Berkes has consistently covered coal mine safety since the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, reporting new findings and capturing the impact of the mine disaster on those affected.

Black Lung Returns

In the first piece, Berkes reports that coal miners are hardest hit by black lung in a triangular region of Appalachia stretching from eastern Kentucky through southern West Virginia and into southwestern Virginia. Most shocking, say epidemiologists and staffers at black lung clinics, is the grip it has on younger miners, and its rapid progression to severe stages of the disease.

Scott Laney, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, says of the findings: "Any reasonable epidemiologist would have to consider this an epidemic. This is a rare disease that should not be occurring. It’s occurring at a high proportion of individuals who are being exposed."

Gaming the System

Measuring coal mine dust is key to enforcing the exposure limit. But, as reported tomorrow on Morning Edition, NPR and CPI have found widespread and persistent gaming of the system, which relies heavily on self-reporting by mining companies, and weak prosecution of violators by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MHSA). Coal companies have continued to routinely deceive federal regulators with sampling that minimized dust exposure. Miners, former miners, federal regulators and former federal regulators told NPR and CPI that dust measurement devices were routinely tucked into lunch buckets or under clothing or out in fresh air returns – anywhere away from coal dust.

NPR and CPI report that in 24 of the last 30 years, dust samples taken by federal mine inspectors found higher concentrations of coal mine dust than samples provided by mining companies. In one year, inspectors reported 40 percent more exposure than the industry. If federal mine inspectors measure too much coal dust, mining companies get a do-over. They take their own samples and average them, and if the average meets the standard, the violation disappears. Since 2000, NPR and CPI found that 53,000 valid dust samples contained excessive coal mine dust but MSHA issued violations in less than five percent of those cases.

After the deadly explosion two years ago, miners at Upper Big Branch told investigators they were ordered to manipulate mine dust sampling. Autopsies of the explosion’s 29 victims showed an extraordinarily high rate of black lung – a rate 10 times the average for southern West Virginia and 20 times the national rate. At least two of the men were in their 20s and some had less than 10 years underground.

This investigation was reported by Berkes and Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity. Coal industry reporter Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette also contributed stories as part of this investigation. NPR's reports were produced by Sandra Bartlett and edited by Andrea de Leon, with web editing and production by Alicia Cypress. Related coverage on coal mine safety is available at: www.npr.org/series/131960177/massey-mine-investigation