In the last 40 years, 70,000 American coal miners have died from black lung disease. Though the mining industry and the federal government have provided the victims and their families with over $45 billion, it does not compensate for the fact that these same entities have known for more than two decades that coal miners were breathing excessive amounts of the toxic coal mine dust that causes this disease, according to an investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity.
Protecting coal miners from overexposure requires accurate measurements of coal mine dust to ensure mines are not exceeding the legal limits set by the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 (which limited coal dust exposure to 2 milligrams per cubic meter of air). However, because mining companies are responsible for taking and reporting mine dust samples, and excess dust can trigger citations, fines and even slowdowns in coal production - many companies try to skirt the system. Federal records obtained by CPI and NPR revealed 103 cases from 1980 through 2002 of fraudulent dust sampling resulting in criminal convictions for head honchos of mining operations.
Yet, the report also showed that several loopholes mean that companies need not break the law in order to fudge their dust-sampling procedures. For instance, the law allows companies to sample at only 50% of average production, when miners have as little as half the exposure. Moreover, sampling is only required for 8 hours a day, though miners work an average of 10 at least, meaning that overall 600 hours of exposure a year evades the sampling. Finally, the whole oversight of the process in flawed, as mining companies are simply given a do-over should federal mine inspectors' findings show too much coal dust in their facilities.
Clearly, the current policies are deficient and do not adequately protect miners, leading to an alarming resurgence of black lung disease. Championing the first legislative reform effort is West Virginia Senator Thomas Harkin, who introduced a new bill that would reduce miners' exposure to unhealthy dust and step up regulations to ensure that sampling would more accurately reflect actual exposure. On July 25 of this year, his bill was assigned to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, who will consider it before possibly sending it on to the House or Senate as a whole.