by Ellen Smith

For those who don’t know the history of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel, from 1930 to 1935, approximately 3,000 workers carved a 3 mile tunnel through the Gauley Mountain in West Virginia in order to divert the New River for an electrical station at a Union Carbide plant. Ventilation was limited at best. The miners were not given modest protections like masks or breathing equipment. Quartz dust from cutting into the mountain invaded their lungs. Signs of the deadly lung disease, silicosis, began for some within eight weeks of employment. It’s estimated that up to 1,000 miners who worked on the tunnel — or 33% — contracted silicosis, according to a 2008 book, The Hawks Nest Tunnel by Patricia Spangler.

Public health historians learned in their studies that the building of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in West Virginia was considered one of the worst man-made industrial disease accidents in U.S. history. But as we know, it wasn’t an accident. Workers were placed in harm’s way for profit. Their health be damned.

Fast forward to May 2011.

Last week an independent review panel, appointed by Senator Joe Manchin while he was Governor of West Virginia , reported that 17 of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine explosion on April 5, 2010 had pneumoconiosis or black lung disease. This is according to the autopsy reports from the West Virginia Medical Examiners Office. Four of the other deceased miners were diagnosed by the medical examiner as having “anthracosis,” a term used in lieu of pneumoconiosis to describe the beginnings of the disease. Five of the UBB miners did not have sufficient lung tissue to make a pneumoconiosis determination, according to the report. Three miners did not have black lung.

These are horrific numbers, but it gets worse. Jason Atkins, a roof bolter in the UBB mine with five years of mining experience, was one of the miners diagnosed with the disease. He was only 25 years old.

The current legal limit allowable for quartz in a respirable dust sample is 5%. In other words, the air a miner breathes cannot contain more than 5% quartz. Out of 22 samples from the UBB mine taken from March 2009 – March 2010 and posted on MSHA’s Data Retrieval System, there were only two samples in compliance with the quartz limit. Ten of the samples had quartz levels two or more times the 5% level. One was as high 28.3%. (When respirable dust samples contain more than 5% quartz, the permissible exposure level (PEL) for that mine is reduced to better protect miners’ lungs. Whether mine operators comply consistently with that PEL is a different story.)

The sad fate of these miners and their story is turning into a tragedy that tops any John Grisham novel. This week, Bloomberg News reported that Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, Chairman of the Board for Massey Energy and a former deputy director of the CIA , claims there is a conspiracy by the Obama Administration to destroy Massey Energy. Inman claims that the large number of violations against the company is his proof.

There is no conspiracy. The record is clear: 71% of the deceased UBB miners had positive findings of black lung disease. Combine that fact with the company’s noncompliance of ventilation standards. Those men were going to die from working in that mine, one way or another.

Ellen Smith is the owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News. She has been coverning miners’ health and safety since 1987.

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The following are the results of exposure monitoring samples taken at Upper Big Branch between March 2009 and March 2010. Each item shows the date the sample was collected and the percentage quartz in each air sample. (In most cases, the sampling pumps ran for 480 minutes.)

Continuous mining machine operators:
03/23/10: 8.0%
03/23/10: 6.2%
03/22/10: 5.0%
03/22/10: 4.3%
01/14/10: 15.3%
12/29/09: 12.2%
12/28/09: 11.8%
12/07/09: 18.7%
07/21/09: 7.6%
07/21/09: 6.4%
06/09/09: 28.3%
06/04/09: 18.7%
05/26/09: 9.2%
05/20/09: 24.5%
05/20/09: 23.0%
05/19/09: 25.1%
03/09/09: 27.7%
03/05/09: 9.2%

*Three other samples were collected, two with a missing occupation code (11/9/09: 3.2%, and 10/7/09: 22.4%) and one for a Part 90 miner (3/19/09: 2.6%) who is supposed to be working in a less-dusty job because the worker already has dust-related lung disease.)