BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — If coal companies cannot afford to protect miners from black lung disease, Sen. Jay Rockefeller says they should go out of business.
Rockefeller on Thursday hosted a black lung conference at the Bluefield Area Arts Center, and spoke to a standing-room-only crowd of coal miners, miners' widows, health professionals and others.
Black lung has killed 2,000 miners over the last 10 years, but Rockefeller said the disease is completely preventable if companies are willing to take steps to protect their workers.
That is why Rockefeller introduced the Black Lung Health Improvements Act last month. Among other things, the bill would tighten coal dust limits on underground mines from two milligrams of dust per cubic meter of air, down to one milligram.
Although those changes sound miniscule, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health epidemiologist Scott Laney said the changes would be enough to significantly reduce the number of coal miners contracting black lung.
"We're in the midst of a black lung epidemic," Laney said, and Appalachia's bituminous coalfields are ground zero for the outbreak.
Some members of the coal industry have said reducing dust pollution might cut too deep into coal mines' profit margins.
Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky., recently said limits on coal dust should only be advanced if it would not affect coal companies' ability to hire workers.
"Worker safety is a top priority, but not at the cost of putting that family in a very precarious financial situation," he said.
Rockefeller called the excuse "hollow."
"If you can't be in business safely, you shouldn't be in business. Most people in the world of business make that work. Coal operators seem to hold back," he said.
Rockefeller hopes to accomplish the new coal dust rules through federal agency regulations, since it likely would be difficult to get the deeply divided Congress to pass his bill. But even if the regulations don't pan out, Rockefeller plans to move forward with his proposed legislation.
In the mid-1970s, about 30 percent of miners who had worked underground for 20 or more years had black lung disease, according to NIOSH data. That number dropped to just 3 percent by 1999.
Instances of black lung disease have increased dramatically since then, however.
Anita Wolfe, a NIOSH public health analyst, said currently about 10 percent of miners with 20 or more years' experience have black lung.
Some miners are contracting the disease earlier than that: Wolfe has seen one 39 year old miner come down with the disease.
"This is not an old man's disease anymore," she said.
The newest cases of black lung also are different than older cases. Wolfe said damage to the lungs now multiplies faster, with patients quickly progressing from the beginning stages of the disease to the final stages "like we've never seen before."
Wolfe said NIOSH's black lung figures probably underestimate the problem.
Rockefeller said of the 29 miners who died in the Upper Big Branch mining disaster in 2010, 17 had black lung disease and four others had black lung-related conditions.
Wolfe said NIOSH is only allowed to report on patients the agency has worked with, and the group only access to about 35 percent of the mining workforce.
Laney said some workers don't develop black lung until they have left the coal mines, which also leaves out a significant number of cases.
It's unclear why black lung cases are increasing. Wolfe said some experts point to increased work hours for miners, changes to the kinds of coal being mined, and even the heavy machinery that has replaced human labor over the last several decades.
But she said there's no dispute about how miners are getting the disease.
"Miners are being exposed to too much dust," Wolfe said. "In this day and age, with the technology we have . . . it shouldn't be happening."