A lot of people think of black lung disease as a thing of the past. However, for coal miners in West Virginia, the threat now is as real as it has ever been. According to an investigation by National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity, cases of severe black lung disease among Appalachian coal miners have quadrupled since 1980.
Even worse, the investigation revealed that federal regulators and coal mining industry officials have known about the problem for more than 20 years, but have made little effort to stop the surge. As a result, even young coal miners are developing black lung disease at an astounding pace.
After the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was passed, cases of black lung disease fell dramatically. This was due in large part to the fact that the act placed strict limits on permissible coal dust exposure limits in the mines. Most experts think the current increase in black lung disease is directly related to mine operators' failure to keep coal dust adequately controlled. A pulmonologist at West Virginia University told NPR that "there's nothing else that could possibly cause this."
Efforts to regulate coal dust exposure delayed
It has become clear that current efforts to regulate miners' coal dust exposure are not enough. The NPR/CPI investigation found that miners are being hit by a double-whammy of lax enforcement by government regulators and inaccurate and falsified dust measurements by mine operators.
In an attempt to reverse this trend, the Obama administration called for new limits to be placed on miners' coal dust exposure. Over the last two years, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has worked to develop a rule that aims to reduce miners' dust exposure by half. However, the rule's implementation has been delayed by a group of Congressional republicans who claim the effort is part of a "war on coal." They are backed by industry groups who say the MSHA's approach is too broad. The United Mine Workers, however, are concerned that the regulations are not strict enough. Still, the UMW has said that because the problems with black lung disease are so severe, the new regulations should be put in place as soon as possible.
Black lung disease lawsuits
A diagnosis of black lung disease puts a person's entire future into question. Will they be able to continue working and support their family? Will the medical bills push them to the brink of insolvency? Will they die a tragic and early death?
The sad truth is that nearly all instances of black lung disease could have been prevented if mine operators had upheld their duty to keep miners free from exposure to unsafe levels of coal dust.
Miners afflicted with black lung disease have a right to hold mine operators accountable and to seek just compensation for the harms they have suffered. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with black lung disease, talk to a West Virginia personal injury attorney who can review your case and help you understand your options.