Union of Concerned Scientists

Black Lung, Abandoned Mines, Struggling Communities—And No Leadership

A miner waiting for a black lung screening. Photo: National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

My grandfather was the son of Italian immigrants—many of whom settled in north central West Virginia to work in the coal mines. He worked hard his whole life and built a better life for himself and our family. According to family legend, he famously told my grandmother early in their courtship, “Stick with me, and you’ll wear diamonds.” She did.

My grandfather died of black lung disease in 1988.

Thirty years later, there’s no way that other families should be going through what mine and so many others have. And yet today the disease is making a strong and frightening resurgence. How is black lung related to economic development and mine reclamation? It turns out Congress has an opportunity to address all three by passing the RECLAIM Act—but only if leaders don’t take their eyes off the ball.

What is black lung disease?

The effect of black lung disease. Photo: LeRoy Woodson, Wikimedia

Coal worker’s pneumoconiosis—known as black lung disease or simply black lung—results from long-term exposure to coal dust. The small particles build up in the lungs over time, since the body can’t expel them, leading to inflammation, fibrosis (the buildup of excess connective tissue), and in the worst-case scenario, necrosis (cellular death). Black lung is similar to other forms of lung disease caused by exposure to silica dust. The early stage of the disease is called simple black lung, while the later stage (and more debilitating) form is called complicated black lung.

As the disease progresses, it quite literally becomes harder and harder to breathe. The disease has no cure (short of a lung transplant, only available for miners healthy enough to qualify).

Black lung is, however, entirely preventable—simply by avoiding inhalation of coal dust.

The Obama administration developed stricter rules to lower the level of respirable dust, and to protect coal miners from the health dangers of exposure. Coal companies fought the rule tooth and nail, and lost in court.

But now the current administration is “reevaluating” the rule meant to protect miners’ health as part of its anti-regulatory agenda, although the current head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration claims that the agency has “no immediate plans” to weaken the rule.

“Mining disasters get monuments. Black lung deaths get tombstones.”

In my grandfather’s time underground, the causes of black lung weren’t well understood. But now we know how to prevent the disease—by reducing exposure to coal dust.

And yet, now, near the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the disease is actually on the rise. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has uncovered the largest cluster of complicated black lung cases ever reported: 416 cases reported in three central Appalachian clinics from 2013 to 2017. The study followed an investigation by NPR last year that found 963 cases from 11 clinics since the beginning of the decade. In NPR’s ongoing coverage, some 2,000 cases have been documented, far more than government statistics.

Even more alarming, the disease seems to be affecting younger miners, in their 50s, 40s, and even 30s. Why? Epidemiologists have linked the new wave of black lung cases to breathing in more silica dust, likely the result of a long-term shift to mining thinner seams of coal. Getting to these thinner seams requires cutting into surrounding rock—creating silica dust that is also breathed by miners.

The human cost of this disease is almost immeasurable. Have a listen to NPR’s audio report on the NIOSH study, which features several miners suffering with the disease. Local officials call this cluster a public health emergency. As one clinic director notes (also in the NPR story):

Mining disasters get monuments. Black lung deaths get tombstones. And I’ve seen many a tombstone in 28 years from black lung. And I’m seeing more now. A lot more now.

Federal support

According to the Department of Labor, 76,000 miners have died of black lung since 1968. To support miners and families when the coal company can’t be identified or is no longer in business, in 1977 Congress set up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which has so far shelled out $45 billion in compensation to miners and their families. (When the coal company responsible for a miner’s disability can be identified, it often takes many years for miners to receive compensation, because the company can hire expensive lawyers and its own doctors to dispute the diagnosis, creating an endless backlog of red tape and bureaucracy.)

Payments from the trust fund go to present and former coal miners in part for medical payments arising from disability from working in the mines. The fund also provides monthly payments to disabled miners and their surviving dependents. My grandmother received those payments after my grandfather passed away.

The money for the fund comes from a per ton excise tax on coal, paid by coal companies.

That tax, though, is set to revert to low, 1977 levels at the end of 2018. The Government Accountability Office is currently studying how this reduction would affect the solvency of the Trust Fund. With all the coal companies going bankrupt in the last few years, there may well be a funding crisis on hand for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund.

Congressional action?

What does all this have to do with abandoned coal mines and economic development?

As I’ve written, the RECLAIM Act, H.R.1731, would release $1 billion over 5 years to clean up and repurpose long-abandoned coal mines. The House version would prioritize projects that spur local economic development. This would represent a win-win for coal communities suffering from the downturn in the industry. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) has championed this legislation in Congress.

Even though RECLAIM would release money from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund, it still represents a payment out of the Treasury; because of budgeting rules, the legislation requires a “pay-for”, meaning adding new revenue or new cuts to offset the payments. Rep. Rogers worked with his colleagues and proposed extending the coal excise tax for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund at current levels for an additional 10 years.

With that change, the bill now represents a win-win-win—ensuring the continuation of much needed medical payments and compensation for miners while also cleaning up abandoned mine sites by funding projects that simultaneously spur local economic and community development.

Opposition from the usual suspects

Rogers and his supporters are working to attach the bill to the Omnibus spending bill for Fiscal Year 2018, which must be completed by March 23 to keep the government open.

Coal mining companies and their national trade association the National Mining Association (NMA), though, hate the RECLAIM Act and are working hard to kill it. All of their lobbying in the name of reducing taxes that would pay for the mess they’ve made, in terms of both environmental destruction and human suffering.

Where’s the leadership?

US House leadership is currently putting together its omnibus spending bill for FY 2018. Is RECLAIM on their minds?

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hails from Kentucky, says that he supports RECLAIM, but actions speak louder than words. Will he acknowledge the broad public support for RECLAIM by his constituents?

As a first generation American, my grandfather was proud to pay his taxes. Coal companies should be too. It’s unconscionable—and sadly, unsurprising—that coal companies continue to put profits over people.

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

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