The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

September 13, 2007

Spike in black lung cases reported

UMWA chief responds to alarming news, calls for investigation

Mannix Porterfield

Three decades after miners were assured the dreaded scourge of black lung disease was on its way out, the disorder is surfacing in “alarming numbers,” and the United Mine Workers of America wants to know why.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts, responding to a report this week in Wheeling showing incidents of black lung have doubled within the past years, called for an investigation.

“Either the respirable dust standard is not being enforced by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or the standard is still too high,” he said in a statement Thursday.

“It’s likely to be the result of a combination of both factors.”

Under the 1969 Mine Safety and Health Act, respirable dust exposure was limited to 2 milligrams per cubic foot of air.

Recent data revealed the prevalence of miners with symptoms of black lung bottomed out in 1999, but since has climbed among miners with more than 20 years of experience in underground mines.

Miners with 25 or more years’ experience have witnessed a jump of from just under 5 percent to almost 10 percent, while the less experienced miners have gone up to 2 percent.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, a representative of the UMWA, agreed a formal inquiry is in order to learn the reasons for the upsurge in pneumoconiosis.

“I have heard of a spike in black lung claims, and this is certainly worth looking into,” Caputo said while attending a union meeting in Charleston.

“What we need to do at the state level, I’m not sure yet. But if more miners are contracting this disease, we have an obligation to look into it.”

Black lung data was unveiled Tuesday in Wheeling at the annual session of the National Coalition of Black Lung and Respiratory Disease Clinics.

Its medical director, Dr. Robert Cohen, suggested something was clearly wrong with the methods used to control respirable dust in the nation’s mines.

“This data is extremely alarming,” he said.

“Given the time lag time between exposure and discovery of disease, these findings are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. We should not be seeing this prevalence rate or this type of advanced disease in the 21st century.”

If MSHA has been enforcing the law, Roberts said, then the latest numbers prove the standard needs to be lowered, a goal of a pending supplemental proposal to the MINER Act, passed after the Sago Mine tragedy in West Virginia.

“Miners need action now,” he added.

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mannix@register-herald.com