In this photo, from 2015 Joe Main, third from left, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, and Patricia Silvey, center, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Operations with MSHA, speak with workers at the Gibson North mine, in Princeton, Ind. Federal mining regulators in December 2017 indicated they were reconsidering rules meant to protect underground miners from breathing coal and rock dust - the cause of black lung - and diesel exhaust, which can cause cancer.
Timothy D. Easley / Associated Press
‘energy, explained’ podcast: The black lung disease epidemic that ‘shouldn’t have happened’
StateImpact's Reid Frazier talks with NPR's Howard Berkes
Scott Blanchard is Senior Editor, WITF News and StateImpact Pennsylvania. The latter is an award-winning public media collaboration among WITF, WHYY in Philadelphia, WPSU in State College and The Allegheny Front in Pittsburgh that covers the state’s energy economy.
Blanchard was named StateImpact editor in 2017, and named senior editor for WITF and StateImpact in 2021. Previously, he was enterprise editor at the York (Pa.) Daily Record, where he led the newsroom’s investigative and projects reporting. He was a 2013 Ochberg Fellow, receiving training at Columbia University in PTSD science, self-help and peer support. He is a past president of the Pennsylvania Society of News Editors. A Rockville, Md., native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri’s journalism school.
In December, an NPR and Frontline investigation revealed that regulators didn’t act when they could have stopped the exposure of thousands of coal miners to toxic dust.
Now, NPR reporter Howard Berkes and a team discovered, there’s an epidemic of black lung disease caused by that dust.
The disease is fatal. Bernard Carlson, who worked in mines in Somerset and Westmoreland counties in western Pennsylvania, has it.
“No matter how you filter, no matter what they filter, the fine stuff is what gets in there and cuts you up,” Carlson told Berkes. “And it ain’t coming out. Once it gets in there, it ain’t coming out. The black stuff sometimes will. But that fine silica dust? Uh-uh. You’re done.”
Berkes and his team found Carlson and other miners after their research on advanced black lung disease cases led to a simple question.
“…I’d been wondering, how could this happen?” Berkes said. “If the regulatory system that was supposed to protect these miners had been working, it shouldn’t have happened.”
In the latest episode of StateImpact Pennsylvania’s ‘energy, explained’ podcast, Berkes talks with StateImpact’s Reid Frazier about the story, and how miners like Carlson reflect on how practices in coal mines caused them to contract this deadly form of black lung disease.