Does “black lung” sound like a dramatic 19th-century disease to you? A problem, perhaps, of a bygone era when coal miners used to work in unsafe conditions without respiratory protection?
Well, surprise: The Trump administration wants to make black lung — also known as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis — great again.
This illness occurs in people exposed to large quantities of coal dust over extended periods of time, and it can take years to manifest. Patients start to cough, develop shortness of breath and experience other respiratory symptoms. And while inhalers, supplemental oxygen and pulmonary rehabilitation can help, sometimes a lung transplant is the best option — if someone can qualify and stay alive long enough to receive donor lungs.
With the decline of coal mining, one would expect to see a corresponding drop in occupational injuries like black lung. In fact, the CDC does show that injuries on the job are dropping, as the industry shrinks. Black lung, however, is inexplicably on the uptick; the fact that it can take several years to manifest may partly account for this, as some patients are developing symptoms related to work that took place years ago. But that alone doesn’t explain it.
NPR and Frontline identified a slew of new black lung cases, and these outlets noted that many were affected by changes in mine conditions. As easy-to-mine seams ran dry, miners were forced to work with more mixed materials, including those containing contaminants that were even worse for their lungs than coal.
These miners didn’t just get sick; they got sick faster than they should’ve.
And here’s the thing that’s really infuriating: Regulators knew about the risks and failed to act over the course of multiple presidential administrations.
But, good news: Black lung is such an established cost of coal mining that the industry is required to pay into a fund to support miners with this progressive disease. Only, there’s one problem: Trump tax cuts are slashing funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, which will not be able to provide needed financial supports without this money.
If the coal industry won’t pay, taxpayers might, to the tune of billions of dollars.
The industry has created a perfect storm for itself, endangering miners with more hazardous working conditions and then failing to pay into the fund designed to support their care. And even with tax breaks and other incentives provided by the Trump administration, which remains steadfastly pro-coal, coal is dying. Utilities are working hard to take coal power plants offline, and overall coal consumption is dropping radically.
In case you’re wondering, increased environmental regulations did not kill coal, despite what people claim. These policies actually provided substantial benefits, including job growth in other sectors.
Consumers don’t want coal because they’re concerned about pollution when it comes to burning coal for energy — and many are also worried about the pollution and health effects of coal mining. The news that coal mining is getting even more hazardous, despite the fact that we’re doing less of it, should make a pretty compelling case for kissing coal goodbye — rather than treating it as an exceptional industry that should be protected at all costs.