Rockefeller hosts black lung forum in Bluefield
BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — If coal companies cannot afford to protect miners from black lung disease, Sen. Jay Rockefeller says they should go out of business.
Rockefeller on Thursday hosted a black lung conference at the Bluefield Area Arts Center, and spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of coal miners, miners' widows, health professionals and others.
Black lung has killed 2,000 miners over the last 10 years, but Rockefeller said the disease is completely preventable if companies are willing to take steps to protect their workers.
That is why Rockefeller introduced the Black Lung Health Improvements Act last month. Among other things, the bill would tighten coal dust limits on underground mines from two milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air, down to one milligram.
Although those changes sound miniscule, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health epidemiologist Scott Laney said the changes would be enough to significantly reduce the number of coal miners contracting black lung.
"We're in the midst of a black lung epidemic," Laney said, and Appalachia's bituminous coalfields are ground zero for the outbreak.
Some members of the coal industry have said reducing dust pollution might cut too deep into coal mines' profit margins.
Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., recently said limits on coal dust should only be advanced if it would not affect coal companies' ability to hire workers.
"Worker safety is a top priority, but not at the cost of putting that family in a very precarious financial situation," he said.
Rockefeller called the excuse "hollow."
"If you can't be in business safely, you shouldn't be in business. Most people in the world of business make that work. Coal operators seem to hold back," he said.
Rockefeller hopes to accomplish the new coal dust rules through federal agency regulations, since it likely would be difficult to get the deeply divided Congress to pass his bill. But even if the regulations don't pan out, Rockefeller plans to move forward with his proposed legislation.
In the mid-1970s, about 30 percent of miners who had worked underground for 20 or more years had black lung disease, according to NIOSH data. That number dropped to just 3 percent by 1999.
Instances of black lung disease have increased dramatically since then, however.
Anita Wolfe, a NIOSH public health analyst, said currently about 10 percent of miners with 20 or more years' experience have black lung.
Some miners are contracting the disease earlier than that: Wolfe has seen one 39 year old miner come down with the disease.
"This is not an old man's disease anymore," she said.
The newest cases of black lung also are different than older cases. Wolfe said damage to the lungs now multiplies faster, with patients quickly progressing from the beginning stages of the disease to the final stages "like we've never seen before."
Wolfe said NIOSH's black lung figures probably underestimate the problem.
Rockefeller said of the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch mining disaster in 2010, 17 had black lung disease and four others had black lung-related conditions.
Wolfe said NIOSH is only allowed to report on patients the agency has worked with, and the group only access to about 35 percent of the mining workforce.
Laney said some workers don't develop black lung until they have left the coal mines, which also leaves out a significant number of cases.
It's unclear why black lung cases are increasing. Wolfe said some experts point to increased work hours for miners, changes to the kinds of coal being mined, and even the heavy machinery that has replaced human labor over the last several decades.
But she said there's no dispute about how miners are getting the disease.
"Miners are being exposed to too much dust," Wolfe said. "In this day and age, with the technology we have . . . it shouldn't be happening."
Although instances of black lung disease are increasing, experts say it is still difficult for miners to receive disability benefits from coal companies.
Rick Hanna, district director of the federal Department of Labor, told Rockefeller about 85 percent of miners who apply for black lung benefits are initially turned away.
That's because, in order to receive benefits, workers have to be deemed totally disabled because of their respiratory problems. He said anyone denied benefits can reapply later, however, since the disease gets worse as patients age.
Dennis Robertson, a black lung benefits counselor at Bluestone Health Center, helps miners file black lung claims and find legal representation.
He said getting black lung benefits is a drawn-out process, with one group of doctors and lawyers insisting a worker has black lung, while other doctors and lawyers hired by the coal company dispute those claims.
"It's a constant battle," he said.
Rockefeller's bill also contains provisions that would allow attorneys representing miners in benefits disputes to collect payment throughout the process, instead of at the end.
He said coal companies can afford costly legal battles over benefits, while miners often cannot.
Companies also can hire highly experienced lawyers with long track records of lots of experience in black lung cases, he said. Miners, in general, are left with over-worked and underpaid lawyers who do not stand to make much money on the cases.
"The operators are contesting everything, at every level. Half of (the coal miners) don't even try to fight," Rockefeller said.
He said paying attorneys throughout the proceedings would provide more incentive for them to help miners fight for benefits.
Black lung is caused by breathing in coal dust, but symptoms of the disease may not show up for years.
Normally, lungs try to rid themselves of foreign substances. That's why we cough. Coal dust is too fine to be coughed up, however, so the particles build up over time. This build-up of coal dust begins to scar the lung tissue, making the organs less and less effective at supplying oxygen to the blood.
Terry Fike's husband, Chester, was a scoop and continuous miner operator for 35 years. He died last December, just four months after receiving a double lung transplant.
Speaking at Rockefeller's black lung conference Thursday, Fike said her husband knew the dangers of breathing coal dust, but kept working to support his family.
"His heart was so weak, from his lungs," she said.
She said miners were told to wear dust masks, but Chester said the apparatus made it difficult for him to work.
Ruth Bishop, another conference panelist, became a widow in April.
She does not receive any of her husband's black lung benefits. Although he was twice granted benefits, they were rescinded before he died.
She said her husband, Ollie, was once a big, strong man with a twinkle in his eye. He was a coal miner, but also an old-time preacher who enjoyed working in his garden and visiting friends.
But as his disease worsened — the coal dust turning his lungs into hardened scar tissue — Ollie began to change.
He couldn't get out to see his friends, so he called them on the phone. He didn't have enough breath to hoot, holler and shout in the pulpit, but he taught Sunday school whenever he was able.
Eventually he could no longer work in the garden, so he began working crossword puzzles.
"Now I don't even have that. Black lung took that away from me," she said.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or zack.harold@
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