Report: Mining regulators could have stopped black-lung epidemic

Published 4:09 pm Wednesday, December 19, 2018

After analyzing 30 years of federal regulatory data, NPR and the PBS program “Frontline” report that government regulators had evidence of excessive and toxic dust in coal mines, and knew it was causing black-lung disease, but failed to protect miners even after they were “urged to take specific and direct action to stop it,” Howard Berkes, Huo Jingnan and Robert Benincasa report for NPR.

In 85 percent of the samples regulators collected from mines, coal and silica dust were at safe levels. The other 15 percent, some 21,000 samples, showed excessive levels of the toxic dust. When regulators found too much silica dust, they made coal mines observe much stricter limits on coal dust, since silica and coal dust are often mixed together in the air. But not always: dangerous levels of silica were found in almost 9,000 samples even after the mines were required to reduce coal dust. And because inspections are so infrequent and not done while miners were actively mining at full production, it’s almost certain that more miners were exposed to excessive amounts of toxic dust than regulators knew about, Berkes, Jingnan and Benincasa report.

“We failed,” Clinton-era mine safety regulator Celeste Monforton told Berkes. “Had we taken action at that time, I really believe that we would not be seeing the disease we’re seeing now… . Having miners die at such young ages from exposures that happened 20 years ago … I mean, this is such a gross and frank example of regulatory failure.” Monforton is now a workplace safety advocate and teaches at George Washington and Texas State universities.

The investigation is notable for being the second collaboration on black lung by NPR and another nonprofit news outlet. After a multiyear investigation, NPR and Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity reported in 2016 that the disease was surging among coal miners, and that the federal government had far underreported the numbers.

One more reason the story is notable: It’s one of the last NPR will have from Howard Berkes, who will leave its air Dec. 31 after a nearly 40-year career at the network. Berkes told The Rural Blog he’ll be working off air a little longer to finish up the Frontline report, scheduled to air on PBS Jan. 22.

Berkes has focused on investigative projects since 2010, many about black lung; before that he spent 10 years as NPR’s first rural-affairs correspondent. He also covered eight summer and winter Olympics and has won more than 40 major journalism awards.

What has driven Berkes’ tenacity as a watchdog for coal miners? “We as journalists do our best when we focus on those who have the least and suffer the most,” he told The Rural Blog. “My investigative reporting following [West Virginia’s] Upper Big Branch mine disaster in 2010 made me realize how dependent coal miners are on federal regulators doing their jobs and mining companies doing the right thing. Coal miners also tend to be misunderstood, dismissed and demonized. These are people without much of a voice and regulatory failure can be catastrophic. How could I turn away?”

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.