Most Upper Big Branch mine disaster victims had black lung disease
09 July 2012
According to a report in the Charleston Gazette, many of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine disaster in April 2012 were suffering from coal workers' pneumoconiosis, more commonly known as black lung disease. This is caused by prolonged exposure to high levels of coal dust and leads to respiratory problems, and in some cases, death.
The final report on the disaster by the US Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) concluded that flagrant safety violations at the West Virginia mine contributed to a coal dust explosion.
Special investigator Davitt McAteer, a mine safety expert and former MSHA president, said that of the 24 victims with sufficient lung tissue for analysis, 17 of them (71%) were found to have black lung. This compares with a national black lung rate among US miners of 3.2%, and a West Virginia rate of 7.6%.
UBB victim Gary Wayne Quarles, for example, had been a mineworker for 13 years and suffered from black lung, according to his autopsy report, even though he was only 34 years old.
McAteer, who led the independent investigation into the disaster, said in an interview with the Living on Earth environmental magazine, that the disease had been virtually eliminated in most other advanced countries, but that it was on the increase in the USA.
Dr. Edward Petsonk, former head of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), said the disease had been declining across the country until 2003, when researchers noticed an upswing, and since then recorded instances of the disease has almost doubled. The most troubling aspect is the prevalence of the most severe form of black lung, called progressive massive fibrosis, which is both disabling and lethal.
Researchers have identified hot spots of new cases, many in a triangular region of Appalachia stretching from eastern Kentucky through southern West Virginia and into southwestern Virginia.
McAteer says changes in mining practices may also be to blame as diminishing reserves push miners into more marginal seams of coal, where the surrounding rock is cut as well as the coal, adding silica dust to the coal particles that end up in the miners’ lungs.
But lax enforcement and monitoring of dust in mines is also a likely factor.
Falsification of the dust sampling used to enforce federal black lung protections was common at Upper Big Branch, according to miners who worked there.
To measure coal dust that causes black lung, miners wear sampling devices known as dust pumps, particularly in e dusty areas of the mine. But miners have told federal and state investigators that managers at UBB would tell miners to avoid dusty areas when wearing their pumps.
For more than a quarter-century, government efforts to end black lung disease have hit brick walls. Industry lobbyists object that tougher dust limits and more rigorous sampling requirements go too far, while unions complain those same proposals are far too weak.
The latest effort by the MSHA was announced in 2010. MSHA head Joe Main announced an ambitious plan to end black lung by tightening up legal dust limits and requiring continuous use of dust monitors, and to reform sampling methods and enforcement of dust limits. This is being opposed by lobbyists and congressmen, and has yet to be sent to the President for approval.
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