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On the Disturbing Return of Black Lung

Friday, July 27th, 2018

The push to revive America’s coal industry has generated alarm because it is almost certain to worsen the climate crisis. But the industry also brings an immediate human cost: black lung disease. Black lung is an often fatal condition contracted by miners who breathe in coal and silica dust on the job. Rates of the disease dropped towards the end of the 20th century, thanks in part to federally mandated reductions in the amount of coal dust miners were allowed to breathe in. Now, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have documented a troubling new trend: Black lung disease cases, particularly among younger miners, have risen sharply since the mid-1990s.

One chart from the group, published by the New York Times earlier in 2018, shows that in 1995 there were “3.7 cases per 1,000 miners.” By 2015, that number had jumped to over 50 cases per 1,000 miners.

Overall, there has been a steady upsurge in the number of cases of black lung, including in its most aggressive forms. A 2018 National Public Radio report identified many reasons for the increase, including the fact that many miners are working longer hours with less time to rest and recover between shifts. Advances in mining technology have also led to the use of more powerful extraction machines that throw more toxic coal dust into the air and into the lungs of coal miners. These factors have made the coal mining regions of Appalachia the “epicenter of one of the worst industrial health disasters in U.S. history,” according to a recent article by Kentucky lawyer, Evan Smith.

Smith advocates on behalf of coal miners through his work at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center. Writing for the West Virginia Law Review, Smith calls the uptick in black lung cases evidence of a “gut-wrenching reversal of 20th century progress.” Black lung disease is preventable, Smith insists, and should have gone the way of smallpox long ago. (Black lung is actually not a medical term, Smith points out, and notes that it is just one name for a host of debilitating physical conditions experienced by miners.) Although mining has always been a dangerous occupation, rates of black lung disease did drop from the 1970’s until the beginning of the 21st century, thanks to improved workplace and environmental regulations.

Dangerous working conditions

Looking beyond black lung, recent incidents such as the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia have shown that working conditions for coal miners often remain harrowingly unsafe. Portions of the Upper Big Branch mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 workers. In the aftermath, autopsies were carried out on a majority of the lungs of those killed, revealing that 71 percent of them had black lung disease, including a worker who was just 25 years old when he died. Upper Big Branch was owned then by Massey Energy, whose CEO, Don Blankenship, was sentenced to one year in prison for his role in making the mine an unsafe place to work.

One of the things that made the Upper Big Branch mine so unsafe was the fact that Blankenship had driven out the miners’ union. Blankenship, who is a current  U.S. Senate candidate in West Virginia as a member of the Constitution Party, “made it his personal campaign to break the union at the mine,” according to a 2010 report by Public Radio International. This resulted in workers having to take on 12-hour shifts as one of Massey Energy’s reported cost-cutting measures. What followed was a number of articles arguing, as reporters Taylor Kuykendall and Hira Fawad did in 2015, that union-staffed mines are more productive and less dangerous for workers. One key piece of Farwad and Kuykendall’s evidence for this comes from safety records in 2014, when just one out of 16 work-related mining deaths occurred at a union site.

Despite Kentucky’s history of worker militancy, today there are zero union mines left in the state, which is at the heart of Appalachian coal country. Still, a group called Kentuckians for the Commonwealth continues to advocate on behalf of the thousands of coal miners who work in the state. Acknowledging the rise in black lung disease among miners, the group aims to move away from relying on toxic, fossil fuel industry jobs such as coal mining.

A dying industry

A 30-year-old organization, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth was born out of a late 1970s movement that documented who was benefiting most from Kentucky’s coal-rich land. (Hint: it wasn’t local communities.) The group organizes workers and residents around its vision of a more inclusive, democratic society and cites direct action as one of its key strategies. Right now, a prominent feature of the group’s work is called Appalachian Transition, which is built around the recognition that, despite Trump’s campaign rallies, coal mining is a dying industry. The goal, according to the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth website, is to “support coal communities and workers as we shift away from a fossil fuel economy to one that is more sustainable and equitable.”

The group criticizes the instability and inequity of the coal industry, which often results in large, non-union corporations cutting a destructive path through Kentucky’s rural communities. Kentuckians for the Commonwealth shares stories of people who have reclaimed the land in the Kentucky mountains, in order to reinvest in the environment and learn 21st century skills such as restorative agricultural practices and sustainable forestry—something that has been done in other coal-producing regions in Germany. The ultimate goal is the creation of a base of grassroots power among Kentuckians, even as the state’s legislature continues to align itself with corporate interests.

For proof, one has to look no further than a recent case concerning black lung disease and workers’ rights. Just weeks ago, executives from the now-closed Armstrong Coal company in Owensboro, Kentucky were charged with “falsifying federally mandated coal dust tests designed to protect miners from incurable black lung disease,” as an editorial in the Lexington Courier Journal put it. The case against Armstrong Coal was prompted by two coal miners who went public with their story in 2014, detailing the destructive impact of black lung disease on their lives. Workers felt forced into going along with the company’s deceptive policies, according to news reports—a situation not unlike that in many mines, especially where union protection has been lost.

The Armstrong Coal case prompted another Kentucky newspaper’s editorial board to declare that “coal miners’ lives still matter,” yet it might be hard for those seeking medical help for black lung disease in Kentucky to believe this. In July, new state laws went into effect that not only make it harder for workers hurt on the job to qualify for workers compensation, but also “excludes the most qualified physicians from being heard in black lung claims.” When the laws were passed, Smith, of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, told National Public Radio that this move “keeps Kentucky coal miners from using highly qualified and reliable experts to prove their state black lung claims [and] looks like just another step in the race to the bottom to gut worker protections.”

So, when Donald Trump and his allies wax poetic about bringing “clean, beautiful coal” jobs back to places like Kentucky, it seems fair to ask a simple question: at what cost?

This article was originally published at In These Times on July 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English Instructor. She is a 2015 Progressive magazine Education Fellow and blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.

Kentucky lawmakers put decisions on black lung treatments in hands of industry-paid doctors

Monday, April 9th, 2018

The political assault on science in the age of Trump has reached a point where even medical specialties are rising up in protest. Radiologists are fighting back against a new Kentucky law that excludes them from the black lung claims process for coal miners in the state.

Under the new legislation, if a miner files a black lung claim with the state, only a federally licensed pulmonologist can review the X-rays and ultimately make a diagnosis. Previously, radiologists could offer a diagnosis as well.

The legislation, part of a larger workers’ compensation bill signed into law by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) on March 30, is expected to make it more difficult for coal miners stricken with black lung disease to receive benefits for treating their disease and living with black lung. The workers’ compensation bill was supported by the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Kentucky Coal Association. Labor groups strongly opposed it.

The American College of Radiology, a national organization representing more than 38,000 radiologists, said it is troubled that Kentucky lawmakers stepped in to determine who is qualified to read the X-rays of coal miners seeking compensation for black lung disease. A process is already in place to determine whether a physician is qualified to review black lung cases, the group said.

“To have that established process superseded by legislators and a political process is inappropriate,” American College of Radiology Chief Executive Officer William Thorwarth Jr. M.D., said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress on Monday.

Thorwarth emphasized that politics should be left out of the black lung claims process. “We hope that the Kentucky legislature will rescind this new law and work with medical providers to save more lives,” he said.

Phillip Wheeler, an attorney in Pikeville, Kentucky who represents coal miners seeking state black lung benefits, said it’s possible the new law could be overturned on appeal. The law applies the rule only to workers who file claims for black lung and not workers in other industries who file benefit claims, Wheeler said Monday in an interview with ThinkProgress.

An appeals court could find that the law violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law by limiting the type of doctors who can be used in black lung cases, while workers in other occupations aren’t subjected to the same limits when they apply for worker’s compensation benefits.

The new law also could prove problematic because it drastically reduces the number of physicians in Kentucky permitted to read the chest X-rays when coal miners file a black lung claim, Wheeler said. Six doctors in Kentucky will now be eligible to conduct the exams, according to an NPR review of federal black lung cases. At least half of them “have collected hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars form the coal industry over the last 25 to 30 years,” Wheeler said.

“The three primary doctors that will be doing most of these exams have shown a distinct bias against coal miners through the years,” he said.

Physicians who read chest X-rays for work-related diseases like black lung — also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis — are known as “B readers” and are certified by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for both federal and state compensation claims. B readers do not specifically have to be pulmonologists or radiologists, though they can be both.

Black lung is common term for several respiratory diseases that share a single cause: breathing in coal mine dust. Over time, black lung disease causes a person’s lungs to become coated in the black particulates that miners inhaled during their time in the mines. Their passageways are marked by dark scars and hard nodules.

The Kentucky Coal Association “basically drafted the legislation,” Wheeler said, explaining why the new law will likely make it more difficult for miners to win black lung claims cases.

The new Kentucky law coincides with the Trump administration’s decision to examine whether it should weaken rules aimed at fighting black lung among coal miners, a move the administration says could create a “less burdensome” regulatory environment for coal companies.

President Donald Trump pledged to end the so-called war on coal but has thus far done nothing to help coal miners who have spent years working in mines win black lung benefits.

Likewise, Kentucky lawmakers are showing a preference for industry profits over occupational health. Evan Smith, an attorney at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Kentucky, said in a tweet that the new law will keep the state’s coal miners from using “highly qualified and reliable experts to prove their state black lung claims.”

The law “looks like just another step in the race to the bottom to gut worker protections,” Smith said.

Black lung has made a comeback in recent years. The disease now sickens about one in 14 underground miners with more than 25 years’ experience who submit to voluntary checkups, according to a recent study, a rate nearly double that from the disease’s lowest point from 1995 to 1999.

Kentucky is one of the states that has witnessed the resurgence in the most advanced form of black lung disease, which is debilitating and deadly.

Lawmakers included the provision in the new worker compensation law even though radiologists are considered to be the most qualified among doctors certified to diagnose black lung disease.

State Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican who represents a district in northern Kentucky, sponsored the legislation. He told NPR that, when writing the law, he relied on the expertise of those who understand the issue — “the industry, coal companies and attorneys.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 9, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate and environment reporter at ThinkProgress. Send him tips at mhand@americanprogress.org

Trump’s rollback of environmental rules will fail to bring back coal, report says

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

“Can Coal Make a Comeback?” asks a new report by Columbia University researchers.

Spoiler alert: In its first few pages, the report states that President Donald Trump will almost certainly fail to bring jobs back to coal country or dramatically boost coal production.

Rolling back environmental regulations, as the Trump administration frantically sought to do during its first 100 days, will not “materially improve” economic conditions in the nation’s coal communities, according to the report.

During Trump’s presidential campaign, he repeatedly vowed to end a “war on coal” allegedly waged by the Obama administration. But as long as natural gas prices remain at or near current levels, U.S. coal consumption will continue to decline despite the Trump administration’s plans to roll back Obama-era regulations, the report says.

“Responsible policymakers should be honest about what’s going on in the coal sector?—?including the causes of coal’s decline and unlikeliness of its resurgence?—?rather than offer false hope that the glory days can be revived,” the report says.

The report was released by the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. It was authored by Jason Bordoff, the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy; Trevor Houser, a partner at consulting firm Rhodium Group; and Peter Marsters, a research analyst with Rhodium Group.

The report seeks to offer an empirical diagnosis of what caused the coal industry to collapse. It then examines the prospects for a recovery of coal production and employment by modeling the impact of Trump’s executive order directing agencies to review or rescind several Obama-era environmental regulations and assessing the global coal market outlook.

Even coal industry executives and coal country politicians have dialed down their rhetoric in recent months, according to the report. Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy and a Trump supporter, urged him to set more modest goals during the campaign and has warned post-election that there is little chance U.S. production can return to pre-recession levels.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) also cautioned?—?after the election?—?that ending the “war on coal” might not bring jobs back to his home state of Kentucky.

The Columbia University report isn’t the first to rain on Trump’s coal parade. In a report released earlier this year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance emphasized U.S. coal’s main problem “has been cheap natural gas and renewable power, not a politically driven ‘war on coal.’”

But words of caution haven’t stopped Trump from waging a crusade for coal. Two weeks into his presidency, Trump signed a congressional joint resolution eliminating the Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule finalized in 2016 by the Obama Administration that would have limited the amount of mining waste coal companies can dispose into streams and waterways. In late March, Trump signed the executive order that called on the EPA to “review” the Clean Power Plan, the agency’s carbon-reduction plan for new power plants.

“Many of these actions will take months for agencies to implement and will be challenged in the courts. But they are clearly designed to communicate Trump’s commitment to deliver on his campaign promises,” the Columbia University report said. “Indeed, he signed his March 28 [order] at the EPA in front of a group of coal miners, and after signing, turned to them and said, ‘C’mon fellas. You know what this is? You know what this says? You are going back to work.’”

In the report’s best-case scenario for coal that the authors modeled, U.S. production would see only a modest recovery to 2013 levels at just under 1 billion tons a year. In its worst-case scenario, consumption falls from 730 million short tons in 2016 to 688 million short tons in 2020 despite Trump’s aggressive rollback of Obama administration climate regulations.

Rather than bet on a recovery in coal production, coal communities, governments, and other private and public sector organizations should work together to “leverage the other assets” that exist in coal country to attract investment in new sources of job creation and economic growth, the study said.

“This certainly isn’t easy,” the authors wrote. “Coal communities in particular are often geographically remote and lack the infrastructure necessary to attract large-scale investment. Miners and others in the local labor market often lack the skills necessary for jobs that offer the kind of compensation available in coal mining.”

The federal government could offer plenty of help to accelerate locally driven economic diversification efforts, according to the report. Infrastructure investment, tax credits, and re-purposing of abandoned mine land that has other economic use can attract new investment and job creation, it says.

“But this all requires a clear-eyed assessment of the outlook for the coal industry and a commitment to put sustainable solutions ahead of politically expedient talking points,” the report says.

This article originally appeared at ThinkProgress.org on May 15, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mark Hand is a climate reporter for Think Progress. Contact him at mhand@americanprogress.org.

Under Trump, coal communities are stuck between a rock and a hard place

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

Blair Zimmerman, Pennsylvania’s Greene County Commissioner, knows coal. As a mine worker for 40 years and then a politician in southwestern Pennsylvania, he knows how important coal is to both the identity and economic stability of his community. He’s even called the White House a few times since President Donald Trump took office, asking the president—who ran on a platform of supporting coal miners that he argued had been forgotten by Washington—to renew health insurance for thousands of retired coal miners.

But he doesn’t think that anything Trump does will bring coal jobs back to levels seen in the industry’s heyday.

“The coal industry is going to be around for years, but to bring it back—that’s not going to happen. [Utilities] are not going to invest in fossil-fueled power plants,” Zimmerman said. When he talked about the promises Trump made to places like Greene County, a community of just over 36,000 situated on the state’s southwest border, Zimmerman laughed, raising his voice a little.

“He doesn’t have a plan. That was all political B.S.,” Zimmerman said. “He said it just to get elected.”

And it worked, because of places like Greene County—in November, Trump overwhelmingly carried the county’s vote, beating Hillary Clinton by 40 points.

One hundred days into his presidency, however, Trump’s actions to help coal communities have been limited to cutting environmental regulations that experts say will do little to help bring mining jobs back.

Meanwhile, Trump’s skinny budget, released in March, would cut funding to seven of the 12 federal programs aimed at revitalizing struggling coal communities. Since 2015, these programs have functioned together under the Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization, or POWER, Initiative. These Obama-era programs include things like workforce training, to help unemployed coal miners obtain necessary skills for finding new jobs, and economic development, to help new businesses move into these communities. According to a new Center for American Progress analysis, Trump’s proposed budget would cut at least $1.13 billion from these programs. ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.

“A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners.”

“Having the administration fund programs that direct money into economic development in the coalfields is really the only way to truly help people right now that are living and working in these communities,” Veronica Coptis, a lifelong Greene County resident and executive director of Coalfield Justice, told ThinkProgress. “A lot of the attacks in this budget make it clear that the Trump administration is not really concerned with helping coal miners, but more concerned with ensuring that coal companies continue to have more control.”

In Greene County, where the unemployment rate is currently 6.7 percent(about two percent higher than the national average), POWER Initiative funds have been hugely useful for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board, a body that oversees programs aimed at helping job seekers find employment and learn skills in southwest Pennsylvania.

Ami Gatts, who has worked for the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board for 25 years, rising to the position of director two and a half years ago, said that the board has received over $1.5 million in POWER Initiative funds, which has paid for things like supportive services to help unemployed workers get computers or transportation for school, or training seminars aimed at helping out-of-work miners obtain new skills. Through POWER Initiative funding, for instance, the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board can reimburse companies up to $8,000 taking a chance on an untrained worker. The employee gets a full salary, while the company is taking less of a financial risk on its new hire.

“When you cut those funds, we don’t have the money to train people to make a skilled workforce,” Gatts said. “It’s going to affect our employers, and it’s going to affect the people who need those skills. It’s very detrimental.”

Beyond cutting programs, however, Gatts said that Trump’s rhetoric about coal jobs coming back has a paralyzing impact on coal communities, where many workers would rather go back to familiar jobs than embark than learn a new trade or skills. Many unemployed coal workers have been hesitant to take advantage of the workforce training services provided to the community?—?because they are convinced that the coal industry, with Trump’s help, will rebound to its former glory.

“Every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

“Every time they put out hope, it stymies people. They just stop and they don’t move forward,” Gatts said. “Change is not something people welcome, and every time I hear, ‘We are going to put the coal miners back to work,’ it stops our coal miners from moving forward.”

The story of the fall of the coal industry has been one of a steady, decades-long decline, with the number of coal mining jobs falling from 177,500 in 1985 to just over 50,000 today. As both a candidate and as president, Trump has made a great many promises to coal communities devastated by a rise in automation and competition from natural gas and renewable energy. He has promised to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-administration’s signature domestic climate regulation aimed at tackling greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector. He has pledged to repeal environmental regulations aimed at protecting streams from mining pollution, and has promised to do away with other regulatory burdens that he argues have been killing the coal industry.

But while these moves may boost coal production slightly—and line the pockets of coal executives in the process—they will do little to stem the production of cheap natural gas or slow the automation of the coal industry. Utilities have already said that Trump’s recent actions have not changed their outlook on coal as an energy source, nor have the actions caused utility executives to reconsider previously scheduled coal plant closures. In short, Trump’s regulatory assault will do little to bring back coal jobs to the regions where he’s promised relief.

Mining jobs paid well—an average of $60,000 a year for people just starting in the industry. And finding unemployed miners jobs that pay similar wages is not easy—especially when workers lack particular skills that employers are looking for. Many unemployed miners, as well as potential employers, are either unwilling or unable to take on the financial burden of paying for a particular kind of skill training, which is why POWER Initiative funds have been so crucial for entities like the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board in trying to address the gap between unemployed workers and potential employers.

“In order to get the skills, you need to have money to pay for the training,” Gatts said. “If you take that away from us, you’re not going to be offering our employers any trained workers.”

Both Gatts and Commissioner Zimmerman note, however, that POWER Initiative funds can only go so far—and that it means little to the community to have a trained workforce without opportunities for employment within the community.

“The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

“We have to bring in other industries, and support the guys that are here now in the coal industry,” Zimmerman said. “The future of the county needs to be the future, and that means looking beyond the coal industry.”

Both Zimmerman and Gatts are looking to the technology sector as a potential new industry for Greene County—they argue that since tech work really only requires an internet connection, companies could find lots of potential workers in economically-depressed coal communities, as long as those communities have access to education and training. It’s a strategy that is similar in many ways to candidate Hillary Clinton’s proposed plan for revitalizing coal communities, which involved federal support for local education and training programs as well as major investment in expanding broadband access for rural communities.

Since 2015, Greene County has been partnering with a nonprofit called Mined Minds, which was started by tech consultant Amanda Laucher, who was born in Greene County but moved to Chicago to work in tech. Together with her partner Jonathan Graham, Minded Minds has begun offering coding bootcamps to teach software development and tech skills to unemployed miners and others in Greene County and the surrounding area.

“We strongly believe that there is talent in these areas,” Graham told ThinkProgress. And he said the program is mutually beneficial. “The tech industry is continuing to grow and getting a talented workforce is difficult and expensive.”

Graham and Laucher also offer their students both pre-apprenticeships—a combination of real world tech work and continuing workshops—as well as full apprenticeships. Mined Minds also works with companies from Silicon Valley to New York to help place graduates of the programs in tech jobs that can be done remotely, so that graduates don’t have to leave their homes, once they have completed the bootcamp and apprenticeships.

The Mined Minds programs, thus far, are self-funded, but POWER Initiative Grants have helped the Southwest Corner Workforce Development Board pay for some of the associated training costs for Greene County residents. Mined Minds also recently applied for their own POWER Initiative funds, with the hopes of expanding their boot camps and reaching more residents in southwest Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

“I think as a model, it makes sense. Having the support of grants means that we’re not taking all the risk ourselves in trying to bring more industry into an area,” Graham said.

He said that if the Trump administration were to cut POWER Initiative funding, it would slow—but not completely derail—their ability to expand their training programs.

“Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”

But for Gatts, who has worked in economic development in this community for over a decade, losing federal funding would be a blow.

“I do think these programs are very necessary,” she said. “Don’t pull these funds. We need to help these people.”

This blog was originally posted on ThinkProgress on April 24, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Natasha Geiling is a reporter at ThinkProgress. Contact her at ngeiling@americanprogress.org.

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