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Regulators Failed To Stop An Epidemic That Is Killing Thousands Of Coal Miners


Thousands of American coal miners are suffering and dying from a disease caused by toxic dust, and now we know more about how this happened and why. NPR's Howard Berkes has been investigating this epidemic of advanced black lung disease, and what we've learned is that federal regulators had plenty of evidence of the threat, going back more than 20 years, but did not do what was needed to be done. Howard joins us now. Thanks for coming in, Howard.


GREENE: So before we get to your reporting and what exactly went wrong here, I just be really clear about what we're talking about. This is coal miners working in coal mines. It's black lung disease, which we've certainly heard about in the past. But this is not about miners breathing coal dust. This is something else?

BERKES: That's right. It's about miners inhaling silica dust, which is 20 times more toxic than coal dust. And it's generated when miners cut into rock containing quartz, silica, while they're mining coal. More and more of that has been happening in the last 30 years in Central Appalachia, in particular, because the big coal seams are gone. They've been mined out. And what's left are these thinner seams. So miners end up cutting a lot of rock with the coal, and that creates these clouds of silica dust.

GREENE: OK. And what do those clouds and what does this type of dust actually do? What are the health consequences?

BERKES: The silica particles that are created are very fine. They're barbed and sharp. They're easily inhaled, and they lodge in lungs, basically, forever. The lungs form fibrotic tissue to fight these invading particles, and that tissue grows and creates scars, making breathing increasingly difficult. One pulmonologist we talked to described it as suffocating while alive.

GREENE: Oh, my.

BERKES: And, you know, we interviewed dozens of coal miners about this. They're all suffering from this disease. And here's what some of them told us. This is Jerry Helton, Bernard Carlson, Jackie Yates, Charles Shortridge, Jimmy Wampler, Edward Fuller and Roy Mullins.

JERRY HELTON: The doctor says my lungs started shutting down. They said that it's hardened just like a lump of coal.

BERNARD CARLSON: You get up hacking, spitting black and blood.

JACKIE YATES: Coughing to the point of almost throwing up.

CHARLES SHORTRIDGE: It's a death sentence.

JIMMY WAMPLER: We're going to die from it.

EDWARD FULLER: There's no cure for it.

ROY MULLINS: And knowing that that's coming to you, it's pretty hard to take.

GREENE: Wow. Just one voice after another there. Are there regulations in place to protect workers like these?

BERKES: There are a lot of regulations that are supposed to control exposure to coal mine dust, but they don't directly control silica dust or quartz. And, you know, we acquired and analyzed 30 years of data collected by federal regulators as they measured dust exposure in coal mines. And even though they're measuring dust just a fraction of the time, they still found toxic levels of silica dust, toxic exposure, more than 21,000 times. We spoke with Jim Weeks, who was a federal mine safety official in the Obama administration.

JIM WEEKS: They didn't pay sufficient attention. And, you know, we've got the bodies to prove it. I mean, these guys wouldn't be dying if people had been paying attention to quartz. It's that simple.

GREENE: So I mean, that's basically your investigation here, that regulators should have known how bad this was, how bad the threat is, and done a lot more.

BERKES: That's right. You know, we discovered these over-exposures in the data of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the regulating agency, and we also found internal memos from that agency from as far back as the Clinton administration showing that federal mine safety officials were alarmed by clusters of advanced lung disease way back then. They recognized the connection to silica exposure way back then and they were worried about the ongoing risk to miners. In fact, they sent out warnings to mining companies. But they didn't and no administration then or since, in more than 20 years - Democratic or Republican - has done anything specific about silica.

GREENE: And you played us the voices of maybe a half-dozen or so people suffering from this. How many miners overall are suffering from this disease?

BERKES: We've been counting for two years. We've been contacting clinics all over the country. Our count is now about 2,000 miners, more than 2,000 miners, suffering from this advanced stage of black lung.

GREENE: NPR's Howard Berkes. Thanks so much.

BERKES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.