An investigation into last year’s coal mine disaster in West Virginia reveals a tragedy within a tragedy: autopsies show most of the men who died in the explosion also had black lung. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports on the factors that allowed a disease many thought was history to come roaring back.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. The deaths of 29 men last April in the Upper Big Branch coalmine explosion could have been prevented. That’s the message from the first official report on the West Virginia disaster.
Investigators found that the mine’s owner - Massey Energy - operated the Upper Big Branch in “a profoundly reckless manner.” The report also provides insight into another cause of needless deaths among coal miners: black lung. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports the old scourge of coal mining is back with a vengeance.
YOUNG: Gary Quarles is a West Virginia coal miner, as was his father, his grandfather, and his son, Gary Wayne Quarles. Gary Wayne was one of the 29 miners killed in the explosion in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Early this year, Quarles learned that even before the explosion, his son was likely already doomed to suffer because of his work in the mines.
Gary Wayne Quarles was among the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. Autopsies show he and most of the victims already had signs of black lung disease. (Photo courtesy Quarles family)
QUARLES: Gary Wayne had been in the mines for 13 years and from the autopsy report, at 34 years old, he already had black lung.
YOUNG: Black lung, technically coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is caused by breathing coal dust. Since the early 70s, regulatory controls on dust greatly reduced the number of cases. But the lungs of the Upper Big Branch Mine victims show stark evidence that black lung is back.
MCATEER: Some 71% had some level of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis.
YOUNG: That’s Wheeling Jesuit University Vice President Davitt McAteer, a mine safety expert who directed the independent investigation of the disaster. McAteer says the autopsies show a disturbing rate of the disease.
MCATEER: But it’s really a sad fact when we have other countries around the world that have virtually eliminated black lung that we now are seeing a reemergence of this dreaded disease for the miners.
YOUNG: McAteer’s evidence supports what pulmonologists and occupational health experts have been tracking in recent years: a dismaying increase in black lung cases. For decades, West Virginia University professor and pulmonologist Dr. Edward Petsonk had studied the decline in black lung,
PETSONK: Well, you know, I thought this was going to be a disease that you only read about only in the history books, in the textbooks.
YOUNG: But, then, in 2003 Dr. Petsonk noticed an up-tick in cases.
These cross sections show a normal lung (left) and one with the aggressive form of black lung. “We should not be seeing that advanced disease anymore,” said Dr. Robert Cohen, “and yet we are.”
PETSONK: Since that time, the prevalence of black lung disease has just about doubled. There is a problem of both the prevalence but also, and perhaps most troubling, is the most severe forms of black lung which are both disabling and lethal.
YOUNG: That aggressive form of the disease, called progressive massive fibrosis, is showing up in the X rays that Dr. Robert Cohen sees in Chicago, where he is medical director of the nation’s black lung clinics.
COHEN: Huge conglomerate scars of coal dust and silica dust and scar tissue that are in the lungs. We should not be seeing that advanced disease anymore. And we are seeing a number of cases of this and clusters of this disease, so that is very, very real.
YOUNG: Researchers have identified hot spots of new cases, including the central Appalachian coalmines, and they have a few theories on what’s happening. Lax enforcement and monitoring of dust may be contributing. Davitt McAteer suspects changes in mining practices may also be to blame as higher coal prices and diminishing reserves push miners into more marginal seams of coal.
MCATEER: We’re in narrower seams where the mining process allows us to cut the rock. And it’s cheaper in fact to cut the rock, load it and take it outside and separate it on the surface. It’s cheaper than trying to cut carefully and cut only the coal seam itself.
YOUNG: That’s a problem, explains Dr. Cohen, because when the powerful mining machinery cuts the rock layers above and beneath the coal, it produces silica dust.
COHEN: And that dust is more toxic than coal dust, which is toxic in itself, so that they may be exposed to a sort of combination of dust that’s more toxic than in the past.
YOUNG: Cohen says mining has also gone through major labor changes, with fewer union operations, longer hours for miners and fewer chances to switch positions in a mine. Gary Quarles says his son had tried for years to get his bosses at the non-union, Massey-owned mine to let him change his job.
QUARLES: He’d been wanting off of that job because of the dust. He said, you know, it’s bothering me. And they would never take him off of it. And usually, if you’re doing a good job for a company, they don’t want you off of that job, you know.
YOUNG: Quarles says his son worked 7 years at a position known as the dustiest place in a mine. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health looked into coal dust and found the current standard for the amount of respirable dust was not sufficient. NIOSH recommended cutting the allowable limit in half. That was in 1995.
In 2009 the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, proposed regulations based on that recommendation, but the mining industry is resisting. In testimony on the proposed rules the industry cited higher costs and questioned whether medical evidence supports a need for the new standard. Dr. Edward Petsonk says the cost issue may be real but so is the medical need.
PETSONK: There is all this scientific evidence. And it is one of the most difficult diseases to succumb to, it’s like having a screw tightening slowly across your throat until you gasp every minute of every day and it really is entirely preventable by adequate control of dust.
YOUNG: The National Mining Association did not respond to an interview request for this story. The comment period on MSHA’s new dust rule was recently extended through the end of May. For Living on Earth I’m Jeff Young.
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