The sight of more than a billion gallons of toxic coal ash waste covering a community in Eastern Tennessee has clearly shown the limits of claims made by the coal industry's "clean coal" marketing campaign.
To get another view of the dirty reality behind coal, we need to look inside the lungs of Appalachian miners.
That's what Dr. Edward Petsonk of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health has been doing for more than a decade: examining X-rays of coal miners' lungs to understand the recent rise of black lung, a chronic and potentially fatal disease caused by the buildup of coal dust in the lungs. After years of decline, the disease is becoming increasingly common once again in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and western Virginia.
While about 36 percent of miners who participated in NIOSH studies and who had worked in the mines for 25 or more years had black lung in 1970, that number declined to 7 percent by 1995. But since then it's started to climb, with the most recent data suggesting that about 13 percent of miners with 25 or more years of experience have the disease.
In our earlier report on the rise of black lung, one of the factors we pointed to is that the easy-to-reach coal in these areas has already been extracted, so miners must drill into more rock. That stirs up silica dust, which is even more toxic to the lungs than coal dust.
Now a new report from the Connecticut Online Journalism Project suggests another factor that might be at work: the increasingly long hours worked by miners.
Project reporter Carole Bass interviewed Dr. Edward Petsonk, the outgoing head of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, who has studied the disease closely. He points out that the federal regulation requiring coal dust levels in underground mines to not exceed 2 milligrams per cubic meter of air was developed with the assumption of an eight-hour shift and a 40-hour workweek. However, most miners are now working 60-hour weeks and often 12-hour or even 16-hour shifts:
That packs a double whammy, [Petsonk] explains. "If you work 50 percent more, not only do you get 50 percent more dust in, but you have a lot less time to cough it out. The effect on the lungs is greater than would be considered just from the increase of work hours."
Indeed, statistics on the MSHA website show that the average underground coal miner worked just over 2,000 hours in 1998, a peak production year. That marked a 32 percent jump from 1978. (Work hours continued to rise through 2007, to more than 2,100 per miner.)
NIOSH researchers are currently working to track down data to more closely examine the correlation between longer hours and higher black lung rates.
Under President Clinton, the Mine Safety and Health Administration was planning to following the advice of NIOSH and a congressional committee by lowering the acceptable levels of coal dust in mines. But it canceled those plans after President Bush took office.
The incoming administration's message on the potential of so-called "clean coal" has been mixed, with some members seeming to embrace the industry's rhetoric and others expressing skepticism. As they settle on a policy position, let's hope they don't forget the deadly dirty reality facing the miners of Appalachia.