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Black Lung on the Rise; Excessive Mining and Corporate Malfeasance to Blame

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, July 10, 2012 8:30 EDT
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Coal miner image via Shutterstock.com. All rights reserved.
 
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For decades—at least until the big economic crash of 2008—the country has grown increasingly fond of the conservative narrative that claims that the only reason the majority of government regulation exists is because liberals are all secret communists who want to regulate corporations out of business just to do so. Regulations are seen as unnecessary for any purpose other than to clip profits, and the actual reasons behind most regulation—safety, human rights, environment—are minimized or outright denied with claims liberals are making it up as part of an anti-corporate agenda. There are a handful of leftists who reject any kind of regulation, no matter how useful otherwise, that doesn’t serve the purpose of clipping corporate profits (they’ve been loud in the aftermath of the ACA decision), but they’re a tiny minority. The reality is that most of us want government regulation not because we love “Big Government” or have some secret agenda, but simply because we think that corporations’ right to do business ends where the rest of our noses begin.

Unfortunately, this big-government-is-out-to-get-us narrative seems to go a long way towards explaining why, as reported by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity, black lung is rapidly on the rise amongst coal miners, a generation after it was optimistically believed it could be stomped out completely.

Source: Coal Workers' Health Surveillance Program (CWHSP), NIOSH Credit: Alyson Hurt / NPR

Not only are we seeing more cases overall, but the cases are increasingly happening in younger men who haven’t even been working in the mines as long. Increased coal production is a big part of this. Miners are working 11 hours more a week than they used to, adding up to 600 hours more exposure a year. The mining techniques being used are more efficient at getting at coal, and thereby at kicking up coal dust. And the system for monitoring exposure is broken because of rampant cheating and regulations that basically encourage rampant cheating by a puzzling attempt to accommodate the demands of mining companies instead of always putting the needs of actual human beings who work for a living first.

NPR describes the loophole problem:

* The law permits sampling at only 50 percent of average production, when miners have as little as half the exposure.

* Sampling is required only eight hours a day even though miners work at least 10 hours a day on average. That amounts to about 600 hours of exposure a year that is not measured in the sampling.

* If federal mine inspectors’ findings show too much coal dust, mining companies get a do-over. They take five of their own samples and average them. The sample with the greatest exposure is often discounted. If the average then meets the exposure standard, the violation disappears.

These kind of loopholes are a direct result of imagining that governments regulate corporations because they’re out to get them, instead of for the more straightforward reason that they’re out to protect workers. Even if that wasn’t the reason in the first place, the relentless shutting down of attempts to improve the regulations absolutely do stem from this paranoid mindset.

As has become very clear from the fight over health care reform, the inability of powerful conservatives to see ordinary working people as people feeds into this narrative. If you can’t imagine why anyone would care about the people the regulations are there to protect, it’s easy to imagine there’s another reason entirely for the regulations. But these miners are, duh, people. They have families and friends, hopes and fears. They are the reason that we have coal to rely on as energy in the first place. As much as the paper pushers who dodge the regulations like to imagine they’re the main reason we have coal, without people to actually pull it out of the ground, there would be no coal. We owe it to them, as people and as workers who help us all, to look after their safety. Pulling a paranoid anti-profit narrative out of that is simply disingenuous.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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