The increasing hazard of black lung disease facing coal miners

The increasing hazard of black lung disease facing coal miners

West Virginia, October. Friday night football. The Oak Hill Red Devils are hosting the Buckhannon Buccaneers. In small town America, Friday night football is a big deal. 

Zach Davis, head coach for the Buccaneers, described what’s ahead for the area’s young people: “Our kids, some are gonna go to college and then go into some sort of professional career. A lot of ’em will go be a blue-collar worker, whether that’s at Walmart, or a local business, or some sort of convenience store.”

“I notice you’re not mentioning the mines,” said Koppel. “This used to be – this is coal country right here.”

has proposed a new rule that would lower miners’ exposure to respirable crystalline silica. It’s a rule that needs congressional approval, but still faces Republican opposition.

“Sunday Morning” contacted several mining trade associations; all declined the opportunity to comment.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has proposed a new rule that would lower coal miners’ exposure to silica dust, reducing the threat of black lung disease. The rule needs Congressional approval – and there are some who are opposed. 

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William “Bolts” Willis retired from the coal industry years ago, but he’s still in the union; in fact, he’s president of United Mine Workers Local 8843. He told Koppel, “We’ve already got the limits for black lung coal dust. This is silica dust, which has been there, present, all the time, and it cuts your lungs.”

But the proposed rule, he says, may change nothing: “It may not, because there’s not any teeth in what they’re doing to make the companies comply with this.”

“Roscoe” (not his real name) is a 34-year-old working coal miner who fears that he already has black lung. He contends that the mines routinely break the rules, and that if his real name came out, he’s probably never have a job in the coal industry again.

“Coal mining isn’t a bad job,” he said. “I do love coal mining, but it doesn’t have to be the way it is.”

Roscoe explains what happens when an inspector comes on mine property: “Everybody’s crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s. Everything’s done right. When we’re underground, and an inspector pulls up on that property, before he ever gets out of that vehicle, the dispatcher calls underground and lets every section know that there’s an inspector on the property. So, by the time the inspector comes up to the section, everything’s right.”

How many years has that been going on? “That’s been going on since I’ve been in the coal mine,” Roscoe said. “They keep raising these dust laws and these ventilation laws for these coal companies, thinking that it’s gonna help this black lung matter. But it’s not.

“The laws that are in effect now would work, if coal companies actually obeyed them and took care of their men fulltime, instead of whenever there’s just an inspector on the section,” he said. 

“The only thing that mining companies understand is money,” said Sam Petsonk, who represents miners in their lawsuits seeking benefits for black lung. [Coal companies rarely provide such benefits without being sued.] “We are seeing many young miners, hundreds in this region where I practice law, as young as their 30s, losing over a quarter of their lung to pure rock dust. It’s a crisis. We’ve never seen so many young miners with such short exposures becoming so extremely sick.”

Koppel said, “So, for years now, you’ve been trying to get an improvement in the regulation, which you now have.”

“Unfortunately, the rule lacks any significant enforcement mechanism,” said Petsonk. “Before the rule is finalized, the Department of Labor must add significant enforcement mechanisms and specified monetary penalties for violating this rule. Or else, unfortunately, we have no reason to expect that the rate of black lung and silicosis will decline in this country.”

Kevin Weikle explained that a dust pump is used to measure the dust in the air, taking in that dust and trapping it in a filter. But, he said, the mines stack the deck when it comes to testing for air quality. “Company pumps, you would keep them in clean air, to make sure that they passed,” he said.

“So really, what the inspectors were seeing was not a normal shift?” Koppel asked. “If the inspectors had actually seen what the real reading was, what would the difference have been?”

“Significant!” Weikle laughed.

“And what would that have meant?”

“A lot of changes, I mean, in ventilation. They’d up the air required on each machine. It would’ve been more expensive. And a great loss of production.”

“You think that happens a lot?”

“I know it does,” Weikle replied. “Anybody says it don’t is lying.”

The disease, as Weikle knows, is not reversible. His black lung is progressing: “It will progress whether I’m in the dust or not. It’s still gonna grow and lead to probably a lung transplant at some point in time. If I’m lucky.”

And the very considerable expense of a lung transplant is only part of the problem. There are wait lists and limited locations where lung transplants are performed, which can mean moving entire families for months at a time.

Television programs don’t dwell much on what comes next: the unexpected expenses, the likely relocation, the shifting responsibilities. Kevin and his wife, Megan, have four young children. What lies ahead is daunting for all of them. She said, “It’s been really depressing.”

Megan and Kevin, with Ted Koppel. 

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Koppel asked, “All of a sudden, you got a lot more responsibility than you ever thought you were gonna have?”

“Yup, lot of stress,” she replied.

The coal company laid it out for Kevin Weikle half a lifetime ago: he’d break himself before he broke the company. And that’s pretty much how it is.

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Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Ed Givnish.