Mine Workers’ Roberts: Corporate greed extends black lung suffering
John Robinson, a retired coal miner with black lung, speaks during a public hearing hosted by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. (AP Photo/Leah Willingham)

WASHINGTON—Corporate greed extends Black Lung suffering, and not just from the disease itself, says Cecil Roberts. Even worse, the veteran Mine Workers president adds, the illness, which especially hits underground miners who breathe in coal dust for years, is roaring back in a more virulent form in the coal country of Appalachia, including Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and his native West Virginia.

True to his preacher’s pattern, licensed minister Roberts brought that dire gospel to the Senate in late May. Labor Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., gave him a “pulpit,” and Roberts used it. Even in the black-and-white of the printed page, his cadence comes across.

“Many industries deny the problems they cause, but some of the people who own and operate coal mines can be the worst,” he declared.

“They argue they should be allowed to make as much money as possible without government interference. Then, when their actions cause major economic, environmental, or health problems, they want the government to force taxpayers to bail them out.

“They want to keep their profits private but socialize their losses. It is time Congress held these businesses responsible to pay for their misdeeds, not the American taxpayer.”

He repeated: “They want to keep their profits private but socialize their losses. It is time Congress held these businesses responsible to pay for their misdeeds, not the American taxpayer.

“Black Lung is a preventable occupational disease that would have been eradicated years ago, but for the greed of the industry and the failings of those who are charged to protect the nation’s miners,” Roberts preached, repeating a clarion call that, he told lawmakers, UMW has sounded for decades.

Roberts’ sermon revealed an outlook of doom for the miners, union and non-union, past, present, and future, for whom the union president claimed the right to speak.

Roberts, a miner and descendant of miners, didn’t let government off the hook. Too often, he told lawmakers, the Mine Safety and Health Administration turned a blind eye to coal company exploitation, abuses, and danger to its workers. That’s changed under the Democratic Biden administration, the UMW leader said, but there’s still a way to go.

Mine owners seize every chance they get to pad their profits by bamboozling MSHA, lying about safety, and watering down coal dust only just before federal inspectors arrive. Bamboozling and lies are what Massey Coal Company–specifically owner Don Blankenship–did before and after the fatal blast in April 2010 at its Upper Big Branch non-unionized mine. Roberts used it as his prime example.

The miners suffer from Black Lung, starting at an early age, he said. They’re eventually forced to retire because they literally can’t breathe.

They apply for benefits and company-paid doctors find reasons to turn them down. When there’s a tie between the findings of the company doctor and the findings of the miner’s doctor, the company wins before federal administrative law judges.

Wins in the end

And many times, the coal company wins in the end because the miners and their families either run out of money to contest those rejections, the company’s hired gun lawyers tie up the claims at the Labor Department or in the courts—and the miner dies.

The few miners who contest those findings often can’t find lawyers to handle their battles. Who wants to wait 15 years to get paid, due to the backup of Black Lung claims and cases? Roberts asked. And regular miner pension benefits, paid again through the Black Lung trust fund, max out at $772.60 per month, with extra for dependents, he testified.

Worse, Roberts warned, past progress in reducing Black Lung is now going in reverse.

Disease rates declined for decades, but now they’re increasing again, due to a new and virulent form, Progressive Massive Fibrosis. As a result, autopsies show even young miners—men in their 20s and 30s—already suffer from Black Lung.

Roberts’s evidence: Autopsies on the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion. Massey Coal’s negligence about flammable coal dust which ignited there and which caused Black Lung, its cover-up of dust problems when inspectors came, and its flat-out lying about the results, were all in the name of corporate greed, studies show.

Autopsies were performed on 24 of the 29 Upper Big Branch (UBB) victims, ranging in age from 24 to 61, and 17 of them (71%) suffered from Black Lung, Roberts testified.

And the dangerous conditions at Upper Big Branch have long been the rule, not the exception, in coal mining, and still are, especially for Black Lung, Roberts warned.

“The seeds of the recent wave of Black Lung were sown by the actions of federal agencies and coal operators,” Roberts said. The agencies’ “primary job is “to protect the health and safety of the nation’s miners.” But, he said, the owners chase profits and the feds often fell down on the job.

As a result, “The UBB disaster is not ancient history,” Roberts sermonized. “More importantly…it is clear this type of illegal activity on the part of many coal operators were and still are accepted practices in the industry.

“There is a clear and uninterrupted pattern of” coal company “behavior that runs back to the earliest days” of sampling coal mines for how much dust miners inhale. “Tragically, even the spotlight shone on the issue by martyrs of UBB could not put an end to the industry’s reckless behavior.

“This epidemic was further propagated by medical and legal professionals who profited from the misery of those miners unfortunate enough to contract this horrible disease,” Roberts added, referring to company-hired doctors who examine miners and who get the subtle message that they’re paid to find ways to deny Black Lung payments. Which is what they did and do, according to the figures Roberts presented.

Rejection rate of 99 percent

A sample of examination findings by 55 mine-company-hired doctors showed a rejection rate of 99%, Roberts said. “One expert in particular, Dr. Paul Wheeler, was ‘the leader and most productive reader for decades’” of Black Lung cases. And Wheeler worked for the coal companies.

“In more than 3,400 X-ray readings involving more than 1,500 cases, Dr. Wheeler never once interpreted an X-ray as positive for complicated” Black Lung,” preferring instead to apply his own idiosyncratic criteria,” ignoring, among other things, government research and peers’ studies.

There is some hope on the horizon, though, thanks to President Biden’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, Roberts testified. He told Labor Committee Chair Bernie Sanders and the other senators that MSHA spent two years gathering and analyzing data on miner exposure to silica dust—in addition to the constant coal dust that causes Black Lung.

Silica dust, federal health and safety officials have ruled, is dangerous. It causes cancer.

In April, MSHA unveiled a new rule to force mine owners to drastically reduce that silica dust threat. Roberts praised the rule as a good first step. He also said it’s not enough.

Whether mine owners will obey MSHA is another matter. When it comes to coal dust exposure—and to companies paying benefits to disabled and dying miners—coal barons shirk their duties, he said.

Which leads to another looming problem: There are fewer coal barons, and coal companies, to pay into the Black Lung Trust Fund. Many have gone bankrupt and the federal government had to step in.

Further, coal production in the U.S. is declining. Utilities, the coal companies’ main customers, are shifting to oil and particularly natural gas, to combat global warming. Mining firms pay a per-ton royalty to the federal Black Lung disability trust fund, which pays the retired miners—or their survivors—those small monthly checks. But fewer firms bringing out fewer tons of coal equals smaller payments to the trust fund.

By 2050, Roberts warned, domestic coal use by utilities will disappear, leaving coal companies totally dependent on exporting coal. Already half of all U.S. coal is sent abroad, he noted. Exported coal isn’t taxed for the trust fund. The fund, already short by $6 billion compared to potential obligations to afflicted miners, will sink even deeper into the red.

Taxing all the coal is one legislative fix to help Black Lung victims, Roberts said. And he advocated increasing Black Lung miners’ benefits and adjusting them for inflation, speeding up claims and benefits decisions, and providing a tiebreaker Labor Department-named doctor to examine miners in Black Ling cases where the miner’s doctor and the company’s doctor split.

And Roberts wants lawmakers to hold mine owners and operators accountable “for misconduct in the claims process”—a polite way of saying the owners and operators are guilty.

The entire hearing, including a video and Roberts’ written testimony, is at www.senate.help.gov.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.