It all starts with the cough. Well, the cough and maybe a bit of that rust colored sputum that comes up from the ass end of your lungs every now and again. There’s not much to talk about, because half the folks you know got it too and there ain’t much sense in pissing and moaning about something everyone’s got to put up with. Besides, if you raise too big a stink about it your boss might find out and can your sorry ass, which don’t do anybody any good cause now you’re broke and sick where as before you was just broke. Plus, the family needs feeding and the truck needs gas and this was what your father and your father’s father did in their time and they made it out the other side without raising hell; better to ride it out and act like it isn’t there. But, eventually, things get so bad you can’t act anymore, which is usually around the time you can’t work anymore either. Your wife asks you what’s wrong and you say you’re fine because she don’t need to know that you feel like you’re breathing through a crooked straw all the time.
The doctors take x-rays of your chest for the umpteenth time and tell you you’ve got a advanced case of some disease that’s got more syllables than it’s worth. They tell you that there’s no cure, which you knew already on account of it having killed about a quarter of your family over the years, but you don’t tell the doctors that because they’re just doing their job and there ain’t any call for being a jackass, even when folks are telling you you’re dying. Soon after that some other doctor says you need an oxygen tank, which you begin to refuse until you get so out of breath trying to explain yourself that you feel like you’re drowning in air, accidentally proving how much you needed the tank in the first place. After the exam’s over, you let the doctor get to showing you how to strap that fake plastic mustache to the top of your lip before handing you a bullet-shaped tank that you’ll have to lug around the rest of your life like a hyper-oxygenated anchor.
Your son has gone down to work in the mines even though you told his ignorant ass to go out and get himself an education. Then again, he’s got a family of his own now and $800 a week hauling coal buys a lot more groceries than $8,000 a semester in student debt, so you can’t blame him all that much. All the while, your windpipe feels like it’s being slowly crushed in the maw of a vise and no amount of piped-in oxygen seems to make much difference. So, as your son goes off to work a 12-hour shift in the same godforsaken mountains as his ancestors did, you sit at home with your wife and watch your infant son play in his crib, hoping that you’ll live long enough for him to have a memory of who you were.
Ever since folks started working in coal mines, a fair number of those folks have been saddled with Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP), or as you might know it, black lung disease. It is an affliction that has been manufactured by the industrialized world and one that was avoided for the entirety of human history before James Watt up and created the first modern steam engine, sending The Industrial Revolution off on its merry way. Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis is contracted after prolonged exposure to coal dust and there’s really no better way to expose yourself to obscene amounts of coal dust than making a living mining coal seams in the confines of an underground mine. Unlike much of the particulate matter a person might breathe in over the course of their life, coal dust is incapable of being removed or destroyed by the human body. Once the dust makes it’s way through the respiratory system it beds down in pulmonary lymph nodes and connective tissue, which can lead to inflammation and scarring of the lungs. Breathe in enough coal dust and it will begin to aggregate across broad swaths of pulmonary tissue, forming lesions and turning much of the lung black in color1.
Most people think of black lung as being some sort of antiquated disease like scurvy or smallpox that has been eradicated through technological and medical breakthroughs, but it has actually been increasing in prevalence over the past 20 years. After the passage of The 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, deaths attributable to CWP declined precipitously for about 25 years. However, sometime during the mid 1990s, that trend reversed and the death toll began to rise again. Between 1995 and 2004, The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety estimates that around 10,000 miners died from black lung2. Many of the deceased miners counted by NIOHS in their estimate began working the coal mines before the passage of the safety regulations in 1969, which were created in large part to limit miners exposure to coal dust. However, the vast majority of miners presenting with new cases of black lung spent their entire mining career working under regulations designed, in theory, to eradicate Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis. After the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia that killed 29 men, officials were able to look at the lungs of 24 of the victims during the autopsy process and found that, of the 24 men, 17 of them showed signs of CWP. Some of the men who were suffering from various gradations of black lung were as young as 25 and a few had worked less than 10 years in the mines. In a time when black lung was supposed to be a bygone disease, it had returned with a vengeance, striking younger and more aggressively. How could this have happened?
Well, the simple answer is greed. As is invariably the case with industrial labor, safety measures are good for the health and well being of the laborers themselves, but are bad for business. These regulations were not instituted out of the goodness of old king coal’s heart, but because labor unions like the United Mine Workers Association raised hell for decades, judiciously striking and lobbying Congress to carve out the political will to create regulatory legislation. Naturally, since they wanted no part in the regulations to begin with and because treating their labor force like human beings tended to eat into their bottom line, coal mining companies began trying to game the system from the moment it was set up. Looking at a 43 year data set, you’d have to say they’ve done a hell of a job.
Normally, one would assume that if the goal of a piece of legislation was to prevent chicken eggs from being turned into premature omelets, then it would be poor form to provide foxes with the primary responsibility for guarding the hen house. However, that is exactly what Congress and the Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) have done concerning the regulation of coal dust in mining operations. Every few months, individual mines are expected to send 5 samples of coal dust to the MSHA for analysis to determine if they’re meeting safety standards. The coal companies are supposed to give a pump to the miner with the greatest potential exposure to coal dust during their shift to measure how much coal they’re breathing in on a given day, but that rarely happens. More often than not companies will simply hang the pump in the cleaner air at the mine’s entrance to ensure a good sample3.
When the MSHA actually drops by the mine to observe the test taking place, the mine’s foreman is legally allowed to run the operation at as little as half of normal capacity in an attempt to get the facility to pass regulatory muster. Of course, even if you still score off the charts for coal dust when the MSHA is looking over you’re shoulder, you needn’t worry. There is no immediate punitive action for testing above the limit and the mine in question is allowed to collect a further 5 samples themselves and send them back to MSHA for review. It’s also worth mentioning that MSHA determines whether or not a mine has excess amounts of coal dust not based on any one sample, but on an average of the 5 samples, meaning that you could send in a batch of dust samples in which two of them are over the limit and still technically test below the legal limit. Is it any wonder that out of over 53,000 valid samples collected between 2000 and 2011 that showed illegal levels of dust, MSHA issued violations for less than 2,400 of them?4
The ease with which coal companies can skirt safety regulation is a crucial aspect of why miners are still contracting black lung more than 40 years after legislation was ostensibly passed to eradicate it, but it doesn’t explain the uptick in CWP cases beginning in the mid-1990s. Why has a fully preventable disease that had been rapidly declining for decades suddenly decided to reassert itself? Well, one prominent theory has it that the resurgence of black lung and other respiratory illnesses in coal miners is due in large part to the fact that the process of mining coal has changed greatly in the past half-century, especially in places like Appalachia where the epidemic is most prevalent. After close to two centuries of mining what was once a ubiquitous resource in Appalachia and Eastern Pennsylvania, the rich seams of coal that miners had been harvesting have begun to disappear. This is not to say that the region is in any immediate danger of running out of mineable coal—although that will be happening sooner rather than later—but instead to highlight the fact that the coal that is in places like Central Appalachia is getting harder and harder to extract.
In an effort to reach these thinner coal seams, mining companies have taken to environmentally disastrous tactics such as mountaintop removal mining, a strategy that doesn’t require much explication as there aren’t too many ways to take the top off a mountain. During the process of trying to get at these smaller coal seams, both in underground mines and through approaches like mountaintop removal, miners are blowing up a greater percentage of the rock face than they are the coal seam, which is releasing a much greater amount of particulate rock dust into the air. This is particularly worrisome because much of the rock around coal seams contains a large amount of quartz, a silicate mineral that can be extremely harmful as dust that is small enough to be breathed into the lungs5. Too much inhalation of silicate dust over an extended period of time can result in a condition called Silicosis, which is very similar in nature to Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis. It is believed that this heavier mixture of silicate dust and coal dust in 21st Century coal mining is responsible for much of the resurgence of CWP and that it accounts for the more aggressive nature of cases doctors are seeing. Recent studies have shown that more than 1/3 of miners currently being treated for CWP have a rapidly progressing iteration of the disease, with 15% suffering from the deadliest and most severe form known as Progressive Massive Fibrosis6.
Given the particularly virulent strain of Murphy’s Law that’s held sway in Appalachia since the first Scots-Irish immigrants trudged up the sides of those ancient mountains 200 years ago, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that all this hardship has been born exclusively by those folks who benefit least from it. In exchange for risking the lives of their employees and deliberately manipulating safety regulations, Big Coal has been rewarded with sky high profit margins and obscene political influence. All the miners whose lives were risked have received nothing more than broken promises and busted lungs. The way things were drawn up, these tough as anthracite men would go down into the bowels of the earth and breathe in pounds of coal dust, day in and day out, in exchange for a paycheck that would put food on their tables and the assurance that those who made their fortunes off their hard labor would foot the bill for their broken bodies when they could work no more. That was the agreement, forged not in good faith, but in the blood and sweat of the miners who came before them and who banded together and fought back in an assertion of their basic humanity. It was an agreement that only one side ever intended to keep.
If you accept the presumption put forward by Mitt Romney and his vulture capitalist brethren that corporations are people, it stands to reason that corporations are sociopaths. A quick look at the DSM-IV shows that most corporations are batting close to a thousand when it comes to meeting the criteria for sociopathy, or as it’s known in modern psychiatry, Antisocial Personality Disorder. The DSM-IV definition of sociopathy might as well be talking about AIG or Monsanto when it says,“The essential feature of Antisocial Personality Disorder is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others.” I mean, what could be more corporate than a systematic evisceration of the rights of others? If Corporate America had a family crest, it would be an anthropomorphic skyscraper simultaneous peeing on and setting fire to a small town with the words “Sero Venientibus Ossa” inscribed atop it, a phrase which is Latin for “those who are late get the bones.” By this point in the great capitalist experiment, I suppose that we, the discerning public, should cease to be taken aback by the brazen inhumanity of corporations, but sometimes you can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity and tenacity with which major corporations cannibalize their own workers in the name of profit margins and stock options.
In the fall of 2007, The Patriot Coal Corporation was created out of thin, sooty air when The Peabody Energy Corporation decided to spin-off all of their holdings east of the Mississippi into their own separate company. Peabody Energy is the world’s largest privately owned coal company, clocking in at 316th on the Fortune 500 list and generating more than $8 billion dollars in revenue in 2011, along with $958 million in profit7. When it was first formed, Patriot Coal consisted of 16 mines that were originally operated by Peabody, with 13 of the mines located in West Virginia and the other 3 in Kentucky. Less than a year later, Patriot Coal bought Magnum Coal, a company that was one the biggest players in Central Appalachian coal mining and one that was at the time of its purchase a subsidiary of Arch Coal, the second largest coal company in America.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem like anything worth writing home about. New corporations spin-off from parent companies fairly regularly and the story of 21st century business has been one never ending series of mergers and acquisitions, so what’s the problem? Well, it turns out that Peabody Energy unloaded about 13% of its coal reserves to Patriot Coal, while simultaneously flipping 40% of its health care liabilities to the company8. In addition to being responsible for Peabody’s Appalachian coal operation, Patriot had been a saddled with providing health care for 8,400 Peabody retirees, a number that would jump again when Arch Coal dumped 2,300 of Magnum’s retirees in Patriot’s lap. Last summer, Patriot Coal shocked absolutely no one when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It was the inevitable outcome for a company that was designed to fail. The executive powers that be at Peabody and Patriot will vehemently deny that the company was ever set up for failure, asserting that this was a well meaning enterprise that simply wasn’t able to keep its head above water. By presenting this version of reality, Peabody Energy and Patriot Coal are expecting the general public to believe that the largest private coal company in the history of mankind was so shortsighted and misguided that it loaded a spin-off company with a share of its parent company’s retiree health care benefits that was more than 3 times the share of coal reserves accompanying it and actually expected this company to turn a profit. Big Coal is pleading incompetence, not malevolence.
Now, one question that has yet to be answered is why in the name of all that is holy would Peabody Energy even want to create a company that was destined for bankruptcy? Someone not familiar with the US bankruptcy code would rightly assume that creating a company for the purpose of bankrupting it is a terrible way to make money. That person would be very, very wrong. In her decision last Thursday, Chief Judge for the US Bankruptcy Court of Eastern Missouri Kathy Surratt-States ruled that Patriot Coal was legally allowed to back out of the $1.6 billion it owes in retiree health benefits, 90% of which were promised to miners who never worked for Patriot Coal a day in their life. Judge Surratt-States found that Patriot Coal was no longer beholden to the collective bargaining agreements signed by miners at Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, instead allowing Patriot to set up a $300 million trust account from future profit-sharing to cover some of the health benefits9. This ruling, should it stand, would result in thousands of retired miners and their spouses losing health benefits while Patriot Coal is raking in around $1.3 billion in net profit from a “failed company.”
A good deal of what made this catastrophic miscarriage of justice possible is that the justice system wasn’t at all concerned with the miners or their health benefits. Rather, the bankruptcy code has been designed in a way that places the bulk of the concern on keeping the corporation in question solvent, with little to no consideration of how the process may effect the much of the corporation’s workforce. What the court is really concerned with, at least according to Judge Surratt-States rulings, is keeping big business happy. Two weeks earlier, Surratt-States ruled in favor of Patriot Coal—shocker—denying the United Mine Workers Association’s claim that the compensation package being given out in the course of the bankruptcy proceedings was discriminatory against it’s employees. According to Surratt-States, it’s perfectly fair to distribute 50% of a compensation plan to 20 top level executives in a company of 3,500 workers because:
“With all sensitivity to the contributions of all employees to an organization, the facts remain that certain key personnel perform duties that are more integral to the viability of the organization and such individuals are generally compensated at higher levels. Consequently, decisions made by those individuals will generally have a more drastic effect on the company’s overall performance. On this basis therefore, it is not unreasonable, or even unfair, that those individuals be eligible for higher incentive and retention payments.”10
The message here to miners and other blue-collar workers is simple, and it is clear: you are expendable. You are replaceable. You are lacking in “human capital.” Now, I want to you stop for a second and consider this: a Federal judge has said, in so many words, that miners are not integral to mining. In her view, a bunch of men who sit in an office building in St. Louis11, over 7 hours away from any of the company’s mines, are significantly more vital to running a coal mining outfit than the people that are risking life and limb to actually collect the coal. In this brave new world, it is permissible to provide high level officials with $6.9 million in compensation for having driven a company into bankruptcy so long as, “the Court cannot conclude that the Proposed [Annual Incentive Plan] Participants merely have to show up to work to achieve the targets.” At the same time, unions and their members are chided by the courts for their being ignorant and greedy in “demanding benefits that the employer cannot realistically fund in perpetuity.12”
Indeed, how could the United Mine Workers Association be so selfish as to demand that an employer pay for the treatment of cases of Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis that were the direct result of said employer’s flagrant circumvention of safety regulations? Peabody Energy and Patriot Coal couldn’t possibly be expected to find the capital to pay for $1.6 billion in retiree health care liabilities when they only made a measly profit of about $1.2 billion in 201113. Maybe in the 1970s they could dig something up, but not today—not during the glorious return of the gilded age, where black hearts trump black lungs and corporate greed outshines the common good. Andrew Carnegie, eat your heart out.
11Both Peabody Energy and Arch Coal have their headquarters in St. Louis, MO.