In February 1969, miners in West Virginia launched an illegal wildcat strike. The action halted extraction for half of the mines in the northern part of the state for days. The miners had one demand: end black lung disease.

The action worked. By the end of 1969, new policies went into effect in an effort to curb the disease, which results from the inhalation of coal dust and leads to long-term lung damage and impaired breathing. New exposure limits were set, and miners were offered regular chest X-rays and compensation for damage. Donald Rasmussen, a pulmonologist in West Virginia interviewed by NPR, has tested tens of thousands of miners over the past half-century.

“In 1969, I publicly proclaimed that the disease would go away before we learned all about it,” he adds. “And I was dead wrong.”

Photo courtesy of the National Archives.

New research into the disease by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity reveals that black lung is far from eradicated. The CPI’s iWatch News summarizes their findings:

  • After decades of decline, black lung is back. Its resurgence is concentrated in central Appalachia. Younger miners are increasingly getting the most severe, fastest-progressing form of the disease.
  • The system for monitoring miners’ exposure to the dust that causes black lung allows companies to cheat or exploit loopholes. From 2000 to 2011, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA, received more than 53,000 valid samples showing an underground miner had been exposed to more dust than was allowed, yet the agency issued just under 2,400 violations. This may be attributable, in part, to rules that allow samples to be averaged, potentially masking some miners’ high exposures.
  • Even when companies get caught, they have little to fear. They can take five of their own dust samples to prove compliance, and an MSHA citation goes away. The agency has routinely given companies extra time to fix cited dust problems, granting extensions in 57 percent of cases between 2000 and 2011.
  • Miners have been exposed for years to excessive amounts of toxic silica dust, generated when powerful machines cut through rock. In each of the past 25 years, the average valid silica sample was above the allowed limit.

As always, though, the personal anecdotes are the most compelling aspect of the journalism. We won’t excerpt them here; go read them.

The key takeaway is simple: Critical protections for miners’ health have been dismantled or postponed through the concerted efforts of the mining industry and their allies on Capitol Hill. A companion report in the Charleston Gazette outlines four decades of obstruction:

For more than a quarter-century, government efforts to end deadly black lung disease have hit various brick walls, built by opposition from one side or the other. …