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Black Lung Returns: Widespread Cheating On Coal Dust Tests

David Deal / NPR

A coal miner takes a black lung test in West Virginia

This is part two of an interview with NPR correspondent Howard Berkes about the reemergence of black lung in coal mines. In part one, Berkes faulted “widespread gaming of the [regulatory] system” for the increase.
Read the full NPR/CPI report on how black lung has doubled during the last ten years here.

A: One very graphic illustration of that [widespread gaming] is when you take the samples that are actually collected by mine inspectors, and then you take the samples taken by mining companies, and you compare them. What you find is that mining companies show far less exposure than the mine inspectors do. I believe in one year there was a 40 percent difference. It’s not a system that’s going to give you an honest appraisal of the actual exposure that miners incur.

Q: Can you share some of the examples you found of how coal companies are cheating on these assessments?


A: There have been more than 100 successful criminal prosecutions of mining officials and contractors, through 2002, for fraudulent mine dust sampling. Almost every coal miner we talked to tells you that, oh yeah, we put the dust sampling devices in lunch buckets. Or, I was told I have to hang it in a clean air return. Or putting it in an office, or sticking it under your clothes. Or when it’s your turn to wear the sampling device you walk away from the dust.

The industry says, we don’t know whether this is really happening. But they do acknowledge that there’s a terrible perception problem here. And they want the government to undertake all the sampling instead of having this cloud of suspicion hanging over them. And the Mine Safety and Health Administraiton’s response is, we don’t have the resources to do that.


Q: So it’s simply a manpower issue?

A: Manpower and money. When protections for coal miners for black lung were initially enacted by Congress, the Mine Safety and Health Administration actually had teams of inspectors who did nothing but inspect for coal dust violations. And that’s all they did when they inspected a coal mine. And then came budget cuts in various administrations. And now what happens is that the mine inspector who has a lot of other things to look for when they’re doing a mine inspection, they’ll do coal dust sampling, but they’ll do a bunch of other things. And they’ll hand the dust sampling device to the miner, and the miner’s supposed to wear it for the entire shift, but the inspector can’t stand there and watch them for the entire shift. They have other things to do. They walk away and come back later. Who knows where that sampling device has been?

Q: The big solution here is to cut down on the coal dust in mines. What are companies supposed to be doing to keep that to a minimum?

A: One thing is they can be honest about how much exposure there actually is. And once they know how much exposure there actually is, if it’s violating the health standard then what they’re supposed to do is cut back on the mining. Slow down the mining machine so it’s not kicking out as much dust. But that hurts productivity. This is a process that’s measured second-by-second, in terms of how much coal is produced and how much money is being made. So when you slow down the production process to take care of coal dust, you’re hurting your bottom line.

A: 70,000 coal miners have died from black lung since 1970. And it has cost industry and government $45 billion in compensation. You would think that those two things would be incentive enough.

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