* Three-fourths of Upper Big Branch dead had black lung
* Data show incidence of disease has begun to rise again
By Steve James
NEW YORK, May 20 Black lung disease, long a
killer of coal miners, is on the rise again after retreating in
the 30 years since Congress passed tougher mine safety laws,
health and safety experts said on Friday.
The renewed appearance of the disease emerged from an
investigation of the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in four
decades. It comes at a time when coal prices have risen sharply
and some mine operators have been accused of cutting corners on
safety in favor of profits.
Of the 29 miners killed in the blast at the Upper Big
Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5 last year, almost 75
percent of them showed signs of black lung disease, according
to an independent report released on Thursday.
"That sample ... is a terrifying number, an astonishing
number, particularly given the age of some of these
individuals," said Davitt McAteer, who headed the
investigation, ordered by West Virginia's then-governor Joe
The report blamed mine owner Massey Energy MEE.N for
safety failings, adding "the operator's commitment to
production comes at the cost of safety." It cited inadequate
ventilation systems and rock dusting standards.
In its response to the report, Massey did not address the
black lung issue, but stressed "our goal is to find answers and
technologies that ultimately make mining safer."
Coal dust is one of the main causes of lung diseases such
as coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP), emphysema, silicosis, and
bronchitis -- known collectively as black lung. It can lead to
lung impairment, permanent disability, and death, but like all
occupational diseases, can be prevented.
An estimated 1,500 former coal miners die each year from
it, according to the United Mine Workers union (UMW). There are
about 130,000 coal miners in the United States today, down from
a high of 760,000 in 1927, according to the Labor Department.
Data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety
and Health (NIOSH) show the incidence of black lung cases
declined following the 1977 Coal Mine Safety and Health Act
through the early 1990s, but this decline stopped in the
1995-99 period, and the incidence has risen since then.
Among active coal miners with more than 30 years of
underground mining, the prevalence of CWP declined from 35
percent in the early 1970s to about 7 percent in the late
1990s. However, it increased to nearly 10 percent in the
mid-2000's, the NIOSH figures show.
From 1995 to 2004, more than three-fourths of all CWP
deaths were in the coal-mining states of Pennsylvania, West
Virginia, Virginia, and Kentucky. Pennsylvania alone accounted
for nearly half of all CWP deaths, the institute said.
"It is still killing miners and there are hot spots such as
southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, where Massey has
operations," said UMW spokesman Phil Smith.
Although masks and breathing apparatus are available in
most mines, Smith said many miners do not wear them. "They do
not fit well with facial hair and many miners have beards," he
said. Also they can impair communications underground.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)
says that while there is no cure for black Lung, there are
potentially life-saving measures that MSHA requires to reduce
exposure to respirable coal dust.
"Even though these measures have been required for many
years, new cases of black lung continue to occur among the
nation's coal miners, even in younger miners," MSHA said.
According to the McAteer report on the Upper Big Branch
disaster, black lung was found in 17 of 24 autopsies carried
out. It was not just long-time miners who had the disease, but
some were as young as 25, and five had less than 10 years
experience working in coal mines.
"The prevalence of coal workers' pneumoconiosis among the
deceased Upper Big Branch miners is both surprising and
troubling," the report said in one of its findings.
It recommended that by 2012, the industry, along with state
and federal regulators, adopt rules to reduce the permissible
exposure limit for coal mine dust.
(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)