Coal Blooded: Systemic Corruption Steals Mine Workers’ Rights and Lives

October 9, 2015 / By by Jacqueline Patterson

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”.  This adage came to mind this morning when the first message in my inbox was a message from a newly found colleague, Maureen McCue of Physicians for Social Responsibility. She shared the 2nd installment in the Center for Public Integrity’s (CPI) series “Breathless and Burned: Dying of Black Lung and Buried by Law and Medicine” with me. I was sick to my stomach and ashamed of my alma mater, the Johns Hopkins institution.

I am an avowed tree-hugging environmentalist. I also firmly believe we need to transition to energy efficiency and clean energy. But I am also an ardent defender of human rights. So even as I work to transform how we generate our energy, as long as we are still mining for coal I am standing up for justice for past, present and future coal miners and their families.

Since 1968, 76,000 coal miners have died of black lung disease, while year after year after year the coal mining industry has actively fought against the regulations that would require them to institute measures to protect their workers from toxic coal mine dust.  Last year the first ever regulations to add these critical protections finally squeaked through and became established legislation – far too little and far too late for the 76,000 grieving families.

CPI has brought to light disturbing evidence of a possible connection between my alma mater and the machinery that operates to willfully deny the rights of coal miners and their families to wellbeing and redress, all the while maintaining the rampant profiteering based on polluting with impunity. With fees for readings of black lung case x-rays costing between $500-$750 and with Hopkins being the go-to institution for coal companies seeking to absolve themselves of responsibility, at minimally 2,000 to 3,000 cases per year, that would mean the institution is collecting between $1million and, at the high end, over $2million (not including the fees of $600/hour for physicians to testify in court).  For these cases, the vast majority of the findings come back negative for black lung, often in contrast to positive readings from other doctors.

Meanwhile, the coal mining industry and aligned legislators are pushing back against the Black Lung Benefits Act rule, which proposes to give coal miners greater access to their health records and require coal mine owners to pay all benefits due in a claim before the award can be challenged through modification. A prominent law firm has even been found to have withheld evidence in black lung cases over the years to ensure defeat of compensation claims.

How could there be such a concerted effort to trounce on workers’ rights? It could be because there is money at stake. BIG money!  Coal mining is a multibillion dollar industry where the average coal company CEO earns $8 million annually in compensation, which is 100 times the compensation of the average coal miner who, on a daily basis, risks slow death from black lung disease or instant death from a coal mine collapse. Meanwhile, in 2012 alone the coal mining industry spent $19m in lobbying on an anti-regulatory agenda, and $4 million in congressional campaign contributions, 96% of which went to politicians with histories of voting against regulations that protect worker and community health and wellbeing.

These egregious injustices have been wrought upon people who are too sick and often too impoverished to fight back effectively against the Goliaths that have steamrolled over workers’ rights to safe working conditions. Even though those who toil to keep our lights on every day work in anonymity, they still require just treatment.

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