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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

We're starting, this morning, with the next installment of the joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, about the disease known as black lung. More and more coal miners are dying from it. Our investigation uncovered failures in the system that's supposed to protect miners from the coal dust that causes black lung. We also found loopholes that mining companies have exploited, plus weak enforcement of protections by regulators.

NPR's Howard Berkes has more.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: In his living room in Pounding Mill, Virginia, 47-year-old Mark McCowan holds up a lung x-ray in the bright light of a window. He points to a large white mass in his right upper lobe - progressive massive fibrosis, the worst stage of black lung.

MARK MCCOWAN: You go from being normal to where all of a sudden, one day, you try to do something you used to do and you can't do it...

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MCCOWAN: ...and you're just heaving to catch your breath. And you say this is crazy. It can't be this bad. And then you realize a couple months down the road that it can be.

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MCCOWAN: And you realize a year down the road after that that...

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MCCOWAN: ...you ain't seen nothing yet.

BERKES: This was not supposed to happen to coal miners in Mark McCowan's generation. A 1969 law set a tough limit on coal mine dust that was as little as one-fourth the exposure at the time. And diagnoses soon plunged more than 90 percent. But the decline didn't last.

DR. DONALD RASMUSSEN: From the very beginning, miners told of irregularities in measuring the dust.

BERKES: Donald Rasmussen is a West Virginia pulmonologist who figures he's tested 40,000 coal miners for black lung in the last 50 years.

RICHARD ALLEN: That's persistent, virtually, over the years. So many different stories. So many miners will say if you think the dust is controlled you're crazy.

BERKES: Richard Allen was a federal mine inspector underground in West Virginia when the new law first took effect. He remembers a strange question about a mine official's office which revealed bogus sampling for coal dust.

ALLEN: What color is the man's carpet? It was blue. And it was showing little blue fibers in each sample. And they cross-referenced the fibers in these samples to that carpet and found that he was sampling in his office.

BERKES: Mining companies and federal inspectors put sampling devices called dust pumps on miners underground. But almost every miner we talked to tells of dust pumps tucked into lunch buckets or under clothing or out in clean air returns away from coal dust.

That's where a company foreman told David Neil to hang his dust pump, when he worked underground in West Virginia in most of the 1980s.

DAVID NEIL: And then we'd come back and they'd say well, you might want to wear that, you know, for about a couple of hours and I'll come and get it. And you wear it for a couple hours and then they come and get it, take it and put it back over in the clean air. You know, maybe, if we didn't do it this way, they'd come in, shut the mines down. Then we'd be out of work.

BERKES: This is a common fear in coal country and its encouraged by some mining companies, according to miners we spoke with. Neil developed advanced black lung. So did Randall Wriston, whose last job underground was in a West Virginia mine four years ago.

RONALD WRISTON: If I would have wore a dust pump 50 percent of the time they would have shut down.

BERKES: Because?

WRISTON: Too much dust. Out of compliance. And if they would get a bad sample they'd do is turn 'em upside down and shake 'em and that would give a false reading so they'd come back and do it some other time.

BERKES: And after a deadly explosion two years ago, miners from Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine 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.

Joe Main heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration or MSHA.

JOE MAIN: Government is in a situation where they have to utilize the data that is presented to them. And at times, yes, we have found that the sampling program was not implemented as required.

BERKES: That's an understatement. 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 industry. Even the main industry group admits that's a problem.

Bob Glenn is a consultant for the National Mining Association, which supports sampling only by the Mine Safety and Health Administration or MSHA.

BOB GLENN: It might be that MSHA should take over the entire program and should be given resources to do that. They certainly would be more impartial, you would think, than having the operator take all the samples.

BERKES: That's what mine safety advocates have argued for years. But MSHA chief Joe Main says his agency isn't equipped for the job.

MAIN: It's enormous task for the government to take on. I think having the government assume that role would be a big one.

BERKES: You mean, difficult one because it's big?

MAIN: Time and resources to do it. I mean that's something that has been recognized in the past.

BERKES: In the past from 1980 to 2002. Fraudulent dust sampling resulted in more than 100 criminal convictions, according to federal records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and NPR. The agency says a new enforcement effort called Dust Busters found 400 dust control violations during 80 mine inspections in the last three years.

MAIN: We're finding, during those inspections at times, that the ventilation controls were not in place, the water sprays were not in place. We find that the sampling process that is used is not as required to meet the regulations.

BERKES: The National Mining Association says it encourages its members to obey the law. But they can do that and still keep dust measurements artificially low. They're allowed to sample at only 50 percent of average production. That's as little as half the time miners are exposed. They sample only eight hours a day, even though the average coal miner works at least two hours longer. And mining companies get a do-over when federal inspectors test for coal dust and find violations. The company can then collect five of its own samples, and if the average meets the standard the violation disappears. Tim Bailey is a West Virginia attorney who represents coal miners.

TIM BAILEY: The analogy that I use is if I pull you over for speeding going 80 in a 50 and I'm a police officer, and I tell you, well, here's a journal and I want you to record your speed on this same piece of road for the next five days. And if at the end of those five days, your speed is below the speed limit, then I'm going to tear your ticket up. And that's exactly how this is working right now.

BERKES: In fact, the Federal Mine Safety Agency issued just 2,400 violations for 53,000 excessive dust samples in the last decade, according to records obtained by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. Federal regulators proposed changing the law by making the coal dust standard twice as tough and by requiring sampling that comes closer to actual exposure. But mining companies would still conduct dust tests that would still be self-policing. That has dying coal miner Mark McCowan looking back at the 1969 promise that the Mine Safety and Health Administration would keep him safe.

MCCOWAN: But, you know, since MSHA started protecting us, there's 70,000 of us have died. I don't feel very protected.

BERKES: That's the black lung death toll since 1970. Compensation for the victims and their families has cost more than $45 billion. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can see pictures of the damage coal mine dust does to lungs on our website. If you're wondering why there isn't a technological solution, like respirators, we have a story about that as well. Also, take a look at what working life is like for coal miners as captured by photojournalist Earl Dotter. That's all on NPR.org.

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