Black lung Surges; A Tragedy – But Not a Surprise

From the early days of the 20th Century, until the passage of the 1969 Coal Act in the wake of the Farmington #9 Disaster, over 100,000 miners died in the United States from Black Lung Disease. In 1978, the federal Mine Safety and Health Act set limits on miner’s exposure to respirable dust, and the incidents of Black Lung slowly decreased across the industry. By the mid-1990’s, many in the industry were touting the eradication of the disease all together.

In 2016, that notion was shattered when National Public Radio (NPR) announced it had uncovered an alarming increase in the worst kind of Black Lung cases known as Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF) or complicated Black Lung in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio. The report showed that from 2010, until its release in December of 2016, eleven Black Lung clinics in these four states identified 962 cases of the disease. NIOSH reported a small clinic in Kentucky had diagnosed 60 cases of PMF in a twenty month period.

As Black Lung Rates Increase, Government Tries to Back Away

“This is an extremely disturbing situation,” said Secretary-Treasurer Allen. “In December of 2016, we hear that NPR is breaking a story about a huge increase in Black Lung cases among younger, less experienced miners. Then, just a month later, in January of 2017, the U.S Department. of Labor issued a notice of Proposed Rule making for the sole purpose of reducing medical benefit payments from the Black Lung Trust Fund. Now we are learning that the incidence of the disease is far worse than first reported and is considered by some experts to be an epidemic. This is absolutely unacceptable. We must determine the reason for the spike in Black Lung cases and take action to address the problem. At the same time, we need to ensure miners who have contracted the disease receive the medical treatment they deserve.” The latest report issued by NIOSH in February of 2018, confirms 416 cases of PMF in three clinics in central Appalachia from 2013 to 2017. According to news reports, NIOSH epidemiologist Scott Laney noted, “This is the largest cluster of progressive massive fibrosis ever reported in scientific literature.

This is a Compliance Problem

“The resurgence of this horrible disease is the result of many factors that are impacting the coal industry today,” stated President Roberts. “Many experts and industry officials have cited a litany of reasons for the increase, but in the end, none of those things matter. The fact is, Black Lung is a preventable occupational illness. With the knowledge we have about how this disease is contracted and the technology currently available to mitigate respirable coal mine dust, there is no reason for a miner to contract Black Lung. This is not a dust problem, it is an enforcement and compliance problem. It is about mine operators putting production above miners’ health and safety while state and federal agencies worry more about compliance assistance programs than they do about enforcing the law. Steps must be taken immediately to correct this situation.” Stone Mountain Health Services, which operates clinics and services miners primarily from Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia, generally diagnoses five to seven cases of PMF annually. In recent years, that number has skyrocketed. Since NIOSH concluded its fieldwork just over a year ago, Stone Mountain Clinics have diagnosed 154 new cases of PMF. “It is absolutely outrageous to be in this situation in 2018,” said President Roberts. “We know how to prevent this disease, but given these numbers, it is clear preventative measures are being ignored. We also know that once a miner contracts Black Lung, there is no cure. They will be subjected to the slow and painful death by suffocation that is the end result of this insidious disease. Miners and their families deserve better, and the UMWA will do all it can to see this problem is properly addressed.”

For more information about the recent Black Lung reports click here.