The Mine Safety and Health Administration has finalized a regulation for how much coal dust coal miners can be exposed to while in coal mines. Reaction was swift to come from all quarters, with leaders like West Virginia Senator John Rockefeller saying the rule did not go far enough to protect our coal miners from black lung disease. The Senator said:
"While this is a big step forward, it is by no means the end of our fight to eradicate this scourge of coal miners," Rockefeller said. "And, just as important is our effort to provide healthcare and financial support to those who are already suffering. I'll do all I can to make sure these miners and their families get the benefits they need and so rightfully deserve."
But others had a decidedly different view, with one coal company claiming it would immediately sue to prevent the new regulation from going into effect. The company said that "this rule clearly seeks to destroy the coal industry, and the thousands of jobs that it provides, with absolutely no benefit to the health or safety of miners, whatsoever."
How can we know what to believe when a comprehensive rule making process, including input from all sides and reflecting the views of top doctors and scientists, is pitted against expert industry groups, with each side saying exactly the opposite thing about what's going on? Well, consulting history is one way to start. First of all, it's important to know what we're talking about when we talk about black lung. The Gazette recently explained the disease in plain English:
"Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is actually a collection of debilitating and potentially fatal ailments caused by breathing coal dust. Miners inhale tiny dust particles that are released into the air by coal-cutting machines. As the dust collects over time, lungs become black, scarred and shriveled. Miners often develop a cough, or shortness of breath. Frequently, as the most serious and fatal forms of the disease progress, miners have to fight for every breath."
Over 75,000 coal miners have died from black lung since 1968.
The coal dust rules have not been changed in almost thirty years. In that time, as West Virginians know, the mines have become ever more heavily mechanized, with more machines and fewer miners in the ground, as companies try to mine more efficiently and profitably. But the better and faster the machines, the more coal dust there is in the mines and the finer the particles are - smaller particles can get around and through filters more easily.
Moreover, the deaths of so many miners has allowed doctors to extensively study the disease and its causes - a somewhat sickening byproduct of the huge number of cases. In fact, some university doctors focus their whole careers on the causes and treatment of the disease. One such doctor, Robert Cohen of the University of Illinois, lauded the new rules, calling it a "huge step forward."
But at the same time, some are attacking the rule, saying that the coal dust levels prescribed "cannot be achieved by existing technology." And it's reasonable to think that industry sources would know what they are and aren't capable of. So are we improving conditions for miners, or "killing jobs?" Again, to understand the industry stance, you have to look at history.
In 1968, in Farmington, West Virginia, the No. 9 coal mine exploded, killing 78 miners. The bodies of 19 of those miners have never been recovered. The disaster sparked national outrage and a movement to establish some basic regulations of coal dust in the mines, to protect miners from such death and destruction. A recent book published about No. 9 explained the coal industry reaction to the desire of the widows and the lawmakers to rein in the company practices that led to the explosion:
The coal industry wanted no regulation. Coal companies did not want to pay for equipment to measure dust levels or adopt new practices that would minimize dust. Cloyd D. McDowell, president of the Harlan County, Kentucky, Coal Operators' Association, argued that a lung specialist from Great Britain had told doctors at a UMW hospital in his state that breathing coal dust alone would not cause black lung disease. 'Coal dust per se may or may not be harmful to the health of miners'" [and the limits proposed were] 'arbitrary.'"
No. 9 at 130-31. Of course, coal dust is the direct cause [v] of black lung, and Mr. McDowell and his English doctor friend were much more concerned about the health of coal company profits than they were about the health of coal miners. Another coal company executive named James Garvey proposed "more studies" and claimed also that there was no proof that coal dust being breathed, day-in and day-out by miners, was the cause of black lung. And even a West Virginia Senator, Randolph Jennings, who had always catered to the coal industry's needs, questioned whether the Congress would pass any regulation of coal dust at all. He was worried about the "economic effect" on coal companies.
So what we learn from history is that it repeats itself. No matter what scientists or doctors propose to protect the health and safety of coal miners, the industry is always against it, whatever the regulation happens to say. The quotations in the paper today from coal companies and their patrons in government could be exchanged word for word with what they said in 1968 - "too expensive," "not feasible." This was their position in 1968 when mass deaths from black lung and mine explosions were occurring and it remains true in 2014.
The experience is not unique to coal. Not all that long ago in our nation's history, industry said that asbestos was safe, tobacco was healthy, and that seatbelts were dangerous. As Upton Sinclair said "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Mesothelioma, lung cancer, and thousands of roadway deaths taught us that industry was not telling us the truth.
Labor Secretary Tom Perez had a good response to coal company claims that the issue requires more "study". As he said, "We have, quite literally, studied the issue to death. ... We have the tools to prevent this devastating disease. Now it's time to muster the will to do it." The time to act has indeed come for the people of this state and this country, but history tells us that for some, the time to do better for our miners never comes. It's always around the corner, past the next industry study, or after industry has sued the government to void the rules.
So we can be glad that, however haltingly, however belatedly, MSHA took some action to make our miners safer. Now that the rule is final, the companies can put some of the ingenuity they put into squeezing out profits into squeezing some more coal dust out of the air our coal miners have to breathe to bring coal up to us from underground.