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Black Lung’s Worst Form Afflicted Thousands of Miners, Scientists Say

May 23, 2018, 11:50 AM

More than 4,000 coal miners developed the worst form of black lung disease even as mines shifted to modern dust-control measures, according to new research.

The findings by scientists at the University of Illinois, Chicago—the latest in a string of research this year showing alarming trends in coal miners’ health—could bolster the case for higher excise taxes or tougher dust regulations, moves that would increase coal companies’ costs.

The researchers analyzed data from the Department of Labor’s Black Lung Benefits Program showing the number of former miners confirmed to have progressive massive pneumoconiosis, the most serious form of black lung disease, from 1970 to 2016. Miners must show they have the disease to receive Labor Department benefits.

The data showed 4,679 coal miners were confirmed to have the disease and that half of the cases were from miners seeking benefits since 2000.

‘Overexposed to Dust’

Progressive massive pneumoconiosis is a debilitating respiratory illness that leads to airway obstruction, shortness of breath, and premature death.

“What this data suggests is that these miners have been overexposed to dust during their career,” Kirsten Almberg, the lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago School of Public Health, told Bloomberg Environment.

At the same time, data from mine safety regulators show that most mines were in compliance with dust controls during that time, Almberg said, raising questions of whether dust limits were too high and whether regulators have enforced them.

The research expands on surveillance data compiled by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health finding increased incidences of black lung at health clinics in southwest Virginia.

The findings led lawmakers to fund the rural health clinics at $10 million in fiscal 2018, the highest level authorized under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. The White House has requested $7.26 million for fiscal 2019, about what the program has received in previous years.

Could Lead to Higher Costs

More enforcement or lowered dust limits would be problematic for coal companies. Under the Obama administration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2014 lowered the dust levels that coal miners can be exposed to (RIN 1219-AB90). The Trump administration has proposed studying the 2014 rule, a prelude to changing it.

The prevalence of black lung also has fiscal implications for companies. If more miners are likely to develop black lung disease, Congress may need to take action to maintain a trust fund that pays health benefits to certain miners.

One way to do so is by extending an excise tax on coal companies that pays for the benefits. Under current law, companies will see the excise tax drop by more than half at the end of 2018 if Congress does not act. The Government Accountability Office is expected to release related findings later this year.

Companies say the Obama administration’s dust standards don’t improve health and are impossible to implement.

“Our dedication to the health and safety of our employees includes the prevention and elimination of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis,” Gary Broadbent, senior corporate counsel and director of investor and media relations at Murray Energy Corp. in St. Clairsville, Ohio, said in a statement to Bloomberg Environment.

Peabody Energy and Arch Coal didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The industry also questioned how widespread the problem is, noting that eligibility for benefits has changed over time.

“The heightened incidence of disease is a localized problem, confined to a small geographic region,” Ashley Burke, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association in Washington, said in a statement to Bloomberg Environment. “That said, the coal industry believes that even one new case of black lung disease is too many and remains fully committed to improving the health and safety of miners.”

The scientists are presenting their findings this week at a meeting of the American Thoracic Society in San Diego.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sam Pearson in Washington at spearson@bloombergenvironment.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bloombergenvironment.com