Louisville-Courier Journal reporters Laura Unger and Ralph Dunlop offer us the voices and faces of miners who are suffering from coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.  Their special report, Black Lung: Dust Hasn’t Settled on Deadly Disease, includes an on-line version which features five compelling videos featuring 40- and 50-year old coal miners who are now suffering with the disabling lung disease.  Mr. Danny Hall, 56, for example, who is still severely impaired despite receiving a lung transplant says “if I had to do over, I wouldn’t ever go into coal mining.”

The reporters begin the series with: 

“Coal dust has blackened the lungs of miners for hundreds of years, and efforts to end black-lung disease stretch back decades. But in Eastern Kentucky, the disease persists — and is far worse than federal health officials anticipated it would be by now.”

The coal miners featured in the article and the videos include Mark McGowen, 42, who was diagnosed with black lung at age 40, after working 21 years in the mines.  He dumps out his tool belt loaded with coal dust, and talks about the trade-offs of a good-paying job with benefits and health hazards of working in dust so thick “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.”  McGowen also laments that 38 years have passed since the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 (Coal Act) was passed, a law supposedly designed to prevent miners from developing black lung disease.  In the legislative history of the Coal Act, the law’s authors recognized the hefty toll of the illness:

“…countless thousands have suffered and died or presently suffer from the ravages of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis– the dread miners disease caused by the inhalation of excessive amounts of coal dust.  It is the purpose of the bill H.R. 139501 to protect the health and safety of coal miners, and to combat the steady toll of life, limb, and lung, which terrorizes so many unfortunate families.” (emphasis added)

Other miners featured in the short videos include Billy Dale Bentley, 50, who talks about the challenges of catching his breath even when doing something as simple as working in the family garden.  For every 10 minutes of work, he needs 30 minutes to recover his breath.   Donald Slone, 54, is matter-of-fact when describing the need for a good paying job (his paid $18.15 per hour) to support his family despite the health risks of the respirable coal dust.  James Hamilton, 46, Quincy Cook, 53, and Donald Slone, 54 share their own perspectives on coal miners and black lung disease. 

Dr. Mahmood Alam of the Whitesburg, KY Medical Clinic, with a staff that diagnoses and treats miners with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, says frankly, CWP “will destroy your body, but it’s not going to kill you.”  Something else will cause the CWP-sufferer’s death: an infection, pneumonia, a heart attack. 

Gary Gibson, 59, is a former miner and an MSHA inspector, now on disability for a heart condition, suggests that when inspectors were on-site coal dust levels were not necessarily representative of the typical conditions at the mine.  

He acknowledged that they [mine management] did more — hanging curtains to increase ventilation, for example — when he was around.  “If people like me wasn’t around, they didn’t,” he said, adding that miners would contact him frequently. “They would talk to me if they weren’t getting air.”

At the end of May, MSHA’s assistant secretary announced a new initiative Control the Dust-Prevent Black Lung which focuses on raising awareness of the disease.  I criticized the program for its compliance assistance tone which suggests that mine operators simply don’t understand how dangerous coal mine dust is to workers’ lungs.  The coal miners interviewed by the Louisville Courier-Journal seem to be plenty aware of the health hazard of respirable coal mine dust, as did their fathers and grandfathers who also worked in the mines.   

The National Basketball Association (NBA) issues strong penalties for players, coaches and owners who display unsportsmanlike conduct.  All teams are expected to know the rules, comply with them, or face the consequences.  During a critically important 2007 playoff game, the Phoenix Suns’ Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw received one-game suspensions for an action that violated an NBA rules. (They left the vicinity of their bench when an altercation erupted on the court.)   Technical fouls were given immediately and before the next game started, the league had announced one-game suspensions for both Suns’ players.  The sanctions affected Stoudemire and Diaw in their wallets, but also had an impact on the team which ended-up losing to the Spurs the playoff series.  Who knows how the series might have turned out without the sanctions.  

It makes me wonder whether we should have comparable suspensions for coal operators who violate their dust control plan.  Right now, if an operator is caught out of compliance, a citation will be issued (kind of like being charged in the NBA with a “technical foul”) but then the shift goes on (just like the games goes on in basketball.)  In the NBA, however, if the violation is especially serious, the player(s) will be suspended for one or more games.  So there is not only the immediate punishment (the technical foul shot) but also the chance of a more severe sanction. 

Should changes to the Mine Act recently proposed in Congress include provisions for suspensions on production?  Maybe a crazy idea like this might be more effective than what has been tried in the past.  Obviously, when we have men in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s suffering from black lung disease, our current enforcement system is not protecting miners’ health. 

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