This investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity on the issue of black lung shows – once again – that industry can’t be trusted to police itself. Workers are not being protected. The coal industry has gamed the system through the exploitation of loopholes, as well as downright fraud. Regulators are not doing their jobs, either; the analysis in this story shows that they have known for more than 20 years that miners are breathing excessive amounts of coal dust.
From the series:
From the very beginning, miners reported “irregularities” in controlling coal mine dust, says Donald Rasmussen, 84, a pulmonologist in Beckley, W.Va. Rasmussen says he’s tested 40,000 coal miners for black lung in the last 50 years.
“So many miners will say, ‘If you think the dust is controlled you’re crazy,’ ” he says.
Measuring coal mine dust is key to preventing overexposure. Excess dust can trigger citations, fines and even slowdowns in coal production. Mining companies enforce their own compliance by taking and reporting mine dust samples. Federal mine inspectors also test for excessive dust.
Donald Rasmussen, 84, a pulmonologist in Beckley, W.Va., says he has tested 40,000 coal miners in the last 50 years.
But NPR and CPI have found widespread and persistent gaming of the system designed to measure and control exposure.
Richard Allen, a federal mine inspector underground when the 1969 law first took effect, says he remembers a strange question from a Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigator about a carpet’s color in a coal mine manager’s office.
“It was blue and [MSHA was finding] little blue fibers in each [mine dust] sample,” Allen says. “[Investigators] cross-referenced the fibers in these samples to that carpet and found that he was sampling in his office” and not deep inside the mine.
The mine manager was later convicted of defrauding the mine safety agency and served time in prison.
Federal records obtained by CPI and NPR describe 103 cases resulting in criminal convictions for fraudulent dust sampling from 1980 through 2002. Fines totaled $2.2 million, and some mining company officials went to jail.
In 1991, the Labor Department levied civil fines of more than $6.5 million against about 500 coal mines for tampering with mine dust samples.
Listen to the series or read the transcript here.