Coal miners

This year a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting went to Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization. Hamby’s “Breathless and Burdened: Dying from Black Lung, Buried by Law and Medicine,” was a year-long investigation of how the coal industry denies benefit claims of coal miners who are sick and dying of black lung disease.

Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is a real hazard for miners and others who work with coal. This disease develops when a person, over time, breathes in more coal dust than the lungs can remove. It is called “black lung” because it literally turns lungs black. Eventually the stricken miner can no longer breathe.

Sick miners are supposed to be compensated through the Black Lung Disability Trust, set up by an act of Congress. The trust is funded by an excise tax paid by coal mine operators. In addition, coal mine operators must pay benefits to miners, either directly or through insurance, when they are the responsible employer of the miners.

As with most worker compensation systems, the trust fund was constructed so that miners could get benefits quickly, without having to sue, and in turn the law that set up the fund granted limited liability protection to the mining companies. Under current law a miner suing the mining company for damages must be able to prove that the owner was so recklessly negligent that he intended to harm miners. It’s a nearly impossible burden of proof, in other words.

Compensation Corruption

In brief, Hamby discovered that the coal mining industry, in collusion with doctors and lawyers, was getting away with denying claims to men who were genuinely sick and dying from black lung. The stricken miners are not being compensated through the system, but they have little chance of receiving compensation through the courts, either.

Even miners who do receive awards must wait to collect them. “Companies contest virtually every award, and cases can drag on for years or even decades,” Hamby writes. Coal industry lawyers have long experience at working the system. Miners and their families rarely can afford lawyers to represent them at all in these proceedings.

More shocking, Hamby discovered that a team of radiologists at Johns Hopkins University for years has been providing false diagnoses — anything but black lung — in return for fat “consulting fees” from the coal industry. After Hamby’s report went public, Johns Hopkins suspended its black lung program, pending review. The review continues as of this writing.

There are striking parallels between the coal miners and former asbestos workers who are now being diagnosed with mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos on the job. When sick workers began to sue their former employers, bankruptcy courts set up several trust funds to allow the workers to be compensated and avoid future litigation. However, last year the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Furthering Asbestos Claim Transparency Act (FACT) of 2013, supposedly to protect the trust funds from fraud. But the transparently real purpose of the Act is to discourage people from filing claims at all. The FACT Act has recently been introduced to the Senate.

Black Lung Comeback

Black lung was supposed to have been a disease of the bad old days, no longer part of modern mining operations. Back in the 1960s miners organized to demand safer workplaces, resulting in the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. This Act established standards that limited the amount of coal dust in the air that miners breathe. After 1969 there was a dramatic reduction in new cases of black lung.

But beginning in the 1990s, black lung made a comeback. “In the first decade of this century, black lung claimed more than 7,400 lives, according to government data,” Chris Hamby wrote. Further, the disease in its advanced stages is showing up in younger and younger miners. What happened?

Mining operators learned to take advantage of loopholes in the law that permit companies to expose miners to excessive dust. Instruments that measure coal dust are often turned off or tampered with, miners say, to fool federal inspectors. The average workweek for a miner is eleven hours longer than it was in 1969, meaning that miners get eleven hours more exposure per week. New milling machines that cut through rock to get at coal are producing coal dust laced with silica-based quartz and sandstone, making the dust even more deadly.

In April 2014 the U.S. Department of Labor issued new regulations that will reduce the allowable level of dust particles. Mine operators must also install new equipment that provides real-time dust-level measurements.

Of course, mining companies may find a way to not comply with the new regulations, too. Some people familiar with the industry think that peeling back some of the industry’s limited liability from being sued might help. Coal companies need to worry that sick miners might mean financial ruin, they say.