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Black Lung Makes A Deadly Resurgence


Earlier this week, NPR and the Center for Public Integrity reported astonishing news: the coal miners' disease called black lung is a growing problem again. The investigative report also showed that weak regulation and industry deception has thwarted the effort to protect miners from the coal mine dust that causes black lung.

NPR's Howard Berkes joins us. Howard, thanks for being with us. first,

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: It's good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And, Howard, I think in this day and age, it might be good to begin with a refresher. What is black lung?

BERKES: Well, the formal name is actually coal workers' pneumoconiosis and it's triggered by the inhalation of coal dust. And over time, if there are enough of these particles and exposure continues, the affected lungs shrivel, they harden, they turn black. To me, they look like a scorched paper bag.

And what NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found is that coal mining in portions of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky in particular, now involves more cutting of quartz rock that surrounds and courses through the coal seams and that adds silica to the coal dust. And the combination of silica and coal dust is especially toxic. We now have younger miners that are afflicted with black lung, and there's more rapid progression of the disease to more serious stages.

SIMON: And I know you've spent some time with miners who are suffering from this disease. What stands up for you about your visits with them?

BERKES: You know, that it wasn't supposed to be this way. That's 40 years ago, Congress and federal regulators promised an end to at least the worst stages of black lung. They imposed these strict limits on exposure to coal dust. They imposed an enforcement system that was supposed to hold mining companies to those limits and hold them accountable.

Well, what we found is that mining companies gamed the system from the very beginning, so that there hasn't been reliable and accurate reporting of exposure to coal mine dust. And federal regulators have cracked down from time to time, but NPR and the Center for Public Integrity obtained federal records and they show that in the last decade alone, there were 53,000 valid dust samples that were excessive, but only 2,400 violations were issued.

So coal miners like one we met, a guy named Mark McCowan. He's 47. He should have at least 10 more years of work ahead of him, maybe 40 more years of life, and he and the others are left with ruined lives.

SIMON: Now, in your stories, we heard Mark McCowan's labored breathing when he talked about his work as a coalminer in Virginia and he lives with black lung. He told you it was even tough to hold his 2-year-old grandson.

BERKES: Yeah, and at one point in our interview, I pointed to the photograph on the wall behind him of his grandson. He has this big, broad smile on his face. And this is what McCowan told us.

MARK MCCOWAN: And my biggest fear is I won't live long enough for him to remember me. 'Cause I know my grandfather died when I was 2 and I don't have any memory of him. So, on the one hand you know you're leaving and on the other hand, you know you better make the most of what you've got.

SIMON: Howard, I think almost anyone listening to this will wonder, what's being done? Are there congressional hearings? Are there protests? Are there reform movements?

BERKES: You know, the last time the nation was energized about black lung was back in 1969. That's when 40,000 West Virginia coalminers staged a wildcat strike. And within a few months, just a few months, Congress acted. But I can't resist playing for you a bit of a speech from that era by West Virginia congressman Ken Hechler. This is from a black lung rally.



SIMON: It does sound like it's from a time capsule.

BERKES: Well, you know, you don't hear members of Congress making speeches like that anymore, especially about black lung. And we're not hearing now anything like, you know, the passion, the urgent calls for action that we heard back then. The Mine Safety and Health Administration is vowing to tackle black lung and they have a program called Dust Busters, where they've targeted specific mines.

The agency has proposed some major reforms, but they've been blocked by congressional Republicans who've asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the research that shows black lung is back. And there are concerns that the Obama administration won't move ahead with any reforms in an election year.

In the last 40 years, Scott, black lung killed or helped kill 70,000 coalminers. Together, the industry and the federal government have paid out $45 billion in compensation. These are undeniable facts, and you'd think that might trigger outrage and action in Washington.

SIMON: We have all of our stories about black lung on our website at

Howard Berkes, thanks for joining us.

BERKES: You're welcome, Scott.

SIMON: NPR's Howard Berkes worked with the Center for Public Integrity on an investigation of the resurgence of the coal miners' disease black lung.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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