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Surface Mining Puts Coal Industry Workers at Risk for Black Lung Disease

Black lung disease is the term used to refer to any illness which results from inhaling toxic coal dust. There are two forms of Black Lung Disease—so named because sufferers' lungs appear to be black instead of pink—simple, (CWP) and complicated (PMF). Until recently, only coal miners who worked in underground mines were thought to be at risk of developing this serious illness. Now, a new study released by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) shows that surface miners are at almost equal risk of developing black lung disease as are their peers who work below ground.

Surface mining, which includes strip-mining, open pit mining and mountaintop removal mining, is a type of mining which clears away soil and rock from overlying coal deposits, rather than burrowing beneath ground in mines for collection purposes. Cara Halldin, the coordinator of the NIOSH study, said, "You expect to see less disease among surface miners because you would think they are out in the open air and probably not breathing in as much dust as if they were in a confined space." Unfortunately, results from the study proved that this is not the case.

To reach its conclusions, researchers involved with the study performed chest x-rays and breathing tests on coal miners in 16 states across the country. The results they found were shocking. Halldin says that they identified the disease, in many cases at advanced stages, in workers who had never set foot in below-ground coal mines. According to accounts from surface miners, clouds of dust form around above-ground mining and drilling machines as well as near coal trucks and along the sides of roads that service mining operations, exposing workers to a shocking amount of toxic dust.

What is particularly upsetting about these findings is the fact that stricter safety laws could have kept many of these miners from getting sick in the first place. In 1969, a new federal law greatly decreased the legally permissible amount of coal dust to which miners could be exposed; in the immediate aftermath of that law's passing, newly diagnosed cases of black lung fell by almost 90 %.

But the decrease didn't last long enough. By the mid-90s, newly diagnosed cases of black lung were again on the rise, particularly in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia, where coal dust is rich with silica, a substance that is particularly toxic to humans.

According to investigations conducted by National Public Radio (NPR) and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), this uptick in diagnoses is due to a regulatory loophole which allows individual mine operators to take responsibility for measuring the amount of dust to which their employees are exposed. This regulatory freedom makes way for greedy operators to side-step the laws; in one instance, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) discovered that a mine manager was taking coal dust samples inside his office rather than at the mine site. Though he was convicted of fraud and sentenced to jail time, there are surely many other cheaters who remain under the radar, allowing countless miners to be exposed to amounts of dust far in excess of the legally allowable limits.

In response to this problem, the MSHA has proposed new regulations for mine operators which would again cut the allowable dust exposure limits in half, require samplings to occur when the mine is fully operational at peak production times and require more than five dust samples to achieve compliance. While these proposed rules may improve the situation, for many miners already suffering from black lung disease, they will come far too late to save their health.

The personal injury attorneys at Arnold & Itkin are appalled that coal miners have been allowed to work in dangerous environments for decades without regulatory bodies intervening to save their health. If you or a loved one suffers from black lung disease as a result of coal mining above or below ground, you may be entitled to compensation. Contact our office today for a free consultation regarding your case.


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