Below is two stories which caught my eye this morning concerning coal mining and coal miners. It is the last day of 2016 and still, they suffer. Between job loss and illness and an ultimate death from Black Lung, these people who have worked their entire lives to dig coal so that we have electricity for all of our needs, have suffered their entire lives as slaves to the Corporate system, who entrenched them in this line of work. Appalachia and surrounding area is home to some of the most poor people in America. They were born into mining. Entire families work in the mines. They were never taught to do anything else. And if they all quit today, what would we do for electricity to power all of the gadgets and contraptions that we rely on today, such as the laptop and light I am using now to write this?
Please see the stories below and remember to say a prayer for our Miners and their families today.
On December 30, 1969, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. Since the Monograph mine disaster in Marion County more than 60 years earlier, Congress had been passing laws to address coal mine safety. However, most were filled with loopholes or lacked funding for enforcement.
The tide turned after another Marion County disaster. The 1968 Farmington explosion killed 78 miners. Americans watched in horror as the drama unfolded on national TV.
After the disaster, Congressman Ken Hechler paid to bring hundreds of miners and the widows of the Farmington miners to protest at the nation’s capitol. Black lung doctors rallied miners in the coalfields and testified before Congress about unsafe mining conditions. And in the spring of 1969, 40,000 miners defied their union and went on strike to support the legislation.
The resulting law increased mine inspections; allowed the government to shut down unsafe mines; placed stricter limits on coal dust; improved ventilation, roof supports, and methane detection; and provided compensation to miners suffering from black lung. The landmark legislation ultimately led to a significant decrease in deaths from coal mining.
Across Appalachia, coal miners are suffering from the most serious form of the deadly mining disease black lung in numbers more than 10 times what federal regulators report, an NPR investigation has found.
The government, through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, reported 99 cases of “complicated” black lung, or progressive massive fibrosis, throughout the country the last five years.
But NPR obtained data from 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which reported a total of 962 cases so far this decade. The true number is probably even higher, because some clinics had incomplete records and others declined to provide data.
“The actual extent of PMF in U.S. coal miners remains unclear,” says the report, which appears in this week’s issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I can’t say that I’ve heard really anything worse than this in my career,” says Robert Cohen, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois, Chicago who studies and tracks black lung.
“I can’t think of anything in this particular field … that’s more frightening than this,” Cohen adds.
Edward “Lee” Petsonk of West Virginia University has spent three decades addressing the disease and finds NPR’s numbers “very disheartening, very disappointing.”
“I’ve spent much of my career trying to find ways to better protect miners’ respiratory health,” Petsonk says. “It’s almost like I’ve failed.”
NIOSH released a report Thursday, published in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which focuses on a small health clinic in Kentucky with 60 cases alone of PMF in 20 months. The report acknowledges cases are being missed by the government’s count; it concludes: “The actual extent of PMF in U.S. coal miners remains unclear.”
“The more I talk, the more I get out of breath”
Mackie Branham, 39, of Elkhorn Creek, Ky., spent 19 years mining coal until he was diagnosed with complicated black lung. He ran monstrous mining machines and drilled bolts into mine roofs — occupations NIOSH says can involve excessive mine dust exposure. He worked double shifts and seven-day weeks every chance he had.
His gallbladder was removed one day and he says he was back at work the next. He took two days, he says, after knee surgery, before working a 12-hour shift drilling bolts. But severe breathing problems forced him to leave work in March. And he struggles for every breath now.
“My dad has got it. Everybody that has got it, got it when they had like first stage or so. I’ll probably be the first born to be this bad in the family,” Branham says, describing a family legacy of black lung.
“They can’t breathe but they can still get up and walk around and do stuff. The more I talk, the more I get out of breath. It’s like I ain’t got no capacity.”
Branham was diagnosed with PMF at United Medical Group, a clinic in Coal Run Village, Ky., that was the subject of the NIOSH study. Radiologist Brandon Crum was alarmed by the numbers of miners coming in with such severe disease, including some like Branham, who were in their 30s and 40s and worked less than 20 years underground. So he contacted NIOSH researchers.
“I think the percentage of black lung that we’re seeing now here in central Appalachia is unprecedented in any recorded data that I can find anywhere,” Crum says. “In this clinic we’re roughly around 9 to 10 percent complicated rate, which is around three times higher than even the highest reported numbers.”
NIOSH researchers gathered at the clinic and verified the diagnoses. They, too, were alarmed.
“The current numbers are unprecedented by any historical standard,” says NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney, who has focused on black lung as well as the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa.
“We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia.”
Crum tells NPR he diagnosed 10 more cases of PMF since Laney and his colleagues left the clinic.
In three years, 644 cases
Life with PMF is bleak. It’s incurable and fatal.
Fifty-three-year-old Charles Wayne Stanley of Pound, Va., is matter-of-fact about his future.
“Staying on oxygen 24/7, dying of suffocation, that’s what I’ve got to look forward to,” Stanley says, as he sits in a clinic in St. Charles, Va.
“I’ve seen it too many times. My wife’s grandpa … [I] watched him take his last breath. I watched my uncle die with black lung. You literally suffocate because you can’t get enough air. That’s my prospects.”
Stanley says his diagnosis includes black lung and silicosis.
In just the last three years, 644 cases of complicated black lung were diagnosed at Stone Mountain Health Services, which operates black lung clinics in St. Charles and two other Virginia communities. That’s six times the NIOSH national count in nearly half the time.
Ron Carson is the director of the Black Lung Program at Stone Mountain Health Services in St. Charles, Va. “Something major is going on,” he says.
“I’m not an epidemiologist or a scientist or a doctor,” says Ron Carson, who manages the clinics. “I just see the results that come through the doors, and something is going on. Something major is going on.”
Laney and his colleagues acknowledge in their paper that they have missed hundreds of cases with their national surveillance program. By law, they can X-ray only working miners and the testing is voluntary. NIOSH data show most miners avoid that testing. Only 17 percent of all working Kentucky miners were tested in the NIOSH program since 2011.
Stanley waited until he was out of work, after 30 years mining coal, before he got his first chest X-ray. Miners avoid the NIOSH testing, he says, because they worry it could cost them their jobs.
“If you’re working and you go and have that stuff done and the company finds out about it, they’ll find a way to get rid of you,” Stanley says. “As long as you’re working and producing you’re an asset. But now when you get something wrong with you, you become a liability. And they’ll find a way to get rid of you.”
The last company a miner worked for (for at least a year) is saddled with black lung benefits payments and medical care — even if the miner spent 20 years working somewhere else in excessive dust. It’s the last employer who pays.
But it’s against the law to punish or fire miners for getting X-rays or being diagnosed with disease. Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association also says mining companies are not supposed to see the X-rays.
“Those results are not shared with any employer. It’s at the miner’s discretion the way the program operates today when and if to divulge that information,” Watzman says.
Still, the fear is widespread. So missing from the official NIOSH counts in the last 40 years are the working miners avoiding X-rays, and miners who are retired or laid off.
More than 40,000 miners lost their jobs since 2010. Six hundred mines have closed. And those out of work are now flocking to clinics to get screened for the disease and apply for black lung benefits. Last year alone, 3,000 miners showed up at the Stone Mountain clinics.
“I’m seeing miners now feeling that there’s no hope. I think that they have really come to the realization that there’s other energy out there now that is going to override any coal,” Carson says.
With the increased testing, more cases of complicated black lung are being diagnosed.
“Pure rock dust”
Cohen, Laney and other black lung experts believe thinner coal seams in central Appalachia are likely to blame for spikes in complicated black lung. The thickest seams are mostly gone. The thin seams that remain have coal embedded in rock, and that rock contains quartz. Cutting quartz and coal together results in mine dust that includes silica, which is especially toxic in lung tissue. Stanley worked in so much dust he labeled his mining machine the dust dragon.
“They kept getting less coal and more rock. So you’re cutting 19 inches of coal, you’re cutting 50-60 inches of rock,” Stanley recalls. “And the more rock you cut the more dust you’re going to eat.”