Black lung is on the rise in Appalachia; deregulation of the coal mine industry is the main culprit

To explain why the largest cluster of black lung ever recorded in history is found on the Virginia-Kentucky border today, we must look at politics. 

March 21, 2023 12:05 am

A coal chute in Wise County, Va. (Sarah Vogelsong / Virginia Mercury)

By Jacob Stump

The Virginia Mercury reported on new research by scientists at the University of Illinois Chicago who worked in conjunction with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health,  an agency within the  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers discovered “the largest cluster of (progressive massive fibrosis) ever recorded”   – the most severe form of black lung –  among coal mining communities along the Virginia-Kentucky border. 

What this means for these coal miners is that they “are over eight times more likely than men in the general population to die from respiratory diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and black lung,” according to recent research.”

This kind of terrible discovery makes me wonder about the causes, especially given that, as the Mercury article points out,  black lung cases haven’t been this high since the 1970s. What happened to cause this black lung disease to dramatically rise in central Appalachia?

The news article doesn’t delve into the causes, other than to highlight two relevant facts. 

One is that coal in Appalachia is often deeper in the ground compared to coal elsewhere in the US, which means that coal miners must dig through more rock to get to the coal. Digging through rock creates silica dust and exposure to more silica dust significantly increases the chances of lung cancer.

However, the fact that coal in Appalachia is deeper in the ground doesn’t fully explain why miners in Appalachia are dying of black lung and lung cancer in such high numbers.

To explain why the largest cluster of black lung ever recorded in history is found on the Virginia-Kentucky border today, we must look at politics. 

The last line of the article hints at this connection, which is the second relevant fact. “Current U.S. standards allow coal miners to be exposed to double the level of silica as other workers, although the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is in the process of tightening those rules.”

A central reason why coal miners in Appalachia are exposed to double the levels of silica dust, and a central reason why researchers discovered a massive cluster of black lung cases in Appalachia, is because the last two Republican federal administrations have taken a deregulatory stance toward the coal industry. 

Take the Trump administration. It went on a deregulation spree across a range of industries, including the coal mine industry.

Notably, in February 2017, Trump repealed the Stream Protection Rule, that required coal companies to restore streams and waterways damaged by mining activities and also prevented coal companies from dumping coal ash and other waste by products into waterways.

The end of the Stream Protection Rule in 2017 probably didn’t cause anyone to develop black lung; poisoning groundwater is another matter.

Poisoning the drinking water of the families and communities that live around the mines is precisely the risk of this kind of deregulation.

A great article in Newsweek discussed this very point in 2019,especially dealing with arsenic and lead levels in drinking water around coal mines in West Virginia. 

The 2006 Sago mine disaster in Kentucky  is another example. It killed 12 miners. Notably, Sago happened on the heels of the Bush administration’s deregulatory push.

A January 2006 NPR article highlighted a “record of lenient enforcement at the Sago Mine, which last year was cited 200 times for a variety of safety violations.” The penalties, the highest of which was $440, were tiny compared to the cost of the disaster. But the leniency was part of the Bush administration’s “cooperative relationship between the mine operators and the safety administration,” which meant that the administration pushed through less than half of the referrals for “possible criminal action” due to mine safety violations.  

The year that the Sago mine disaster happened is also the same year that cases of black lung started to increase for Appalachian miners. President Bush’s administration started to go easy on the mine industry, which Trump’s administration continued a decade later.

Deregulation of the coal industry puts safety in the hands of the company owner, while the company is also trying to maximize profit. 

Coal company profit wins over miner safety most every time if left to the mine operator, and not put properly in the hands of government safety regulators.  

When U.S. safety regulators are hand-tied by the Republican penchant for deregulation, then the results are coal company profits built on the backs and blackened lungs of dead miners. 

Jacob L. Stump hails from southwest Virginia. He is a Senior Lecturer at DePaul University and teaches international political economy.

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