Deadly Coal Dust Still A Killer

Coal mining has long been one of America's most dangerous jobs, reports CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver. The government passed laws nearly 30 years ago to clean up deadly coal dust in mines and knock out the leading killer of miners -- Black Lung disease, but it has not worked. Black Lung still kills around 1,500 miners a year.

The green Kentucky hills hold much of this country's coal. Until now, these hills have also held a deadly secret.

When coal is pulled from the earth, it creates a dust that can be deadly to anyone inhaling it -- anyone in the mines. To keep mines safe, the federal government created laws requiring mines to test coal dust levels. But we are now finding out that mines have cheated on the tests, putting their own miners at risk.

In fact, it was some of those endangered miners who helped mine owners get around the federal law.

"They wanted to show as good a sample as they could so they could say, look here, we have a dust-free mine," said Charles Shepherd, a 27-year veteran of the coal mines who is now a minister at Hurricane Gap Baptist Church in Gordon, Kentucky.

Shepherd now admits that he was one of the cheaters. He wore a pump to measure coal dust where he worked. But instead, he says he sometimes was instructed to put the pump in clean, dust-free areas.

"I've been told to put it into a place where it wouldn't collect as much dust," said Shepherd. "It's a lot handier than it would be to wear it, even though you know you're doing wrong."

Shepherd now has Black Lung disease. Another miner -- a foreman who also has Black Lung disease -- said mine operators also fake results by temporarily improving mine conditions, or to "run legal" the day the test is taking place.

CBS News contacted a dozen mine operators, the Kentucky Coal Owners Association, and the National Mining Association for interviews to comment on coal dust tests. None of them would comment.

The cheating was first reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal, which analyzed millions of dust test results sent by mines to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in Washington. According to the paper, many of the tests showed mines that seemed too clean to be true.

As a result, J. Davitt McAteer, the Assistant Labor Secretary for mine safety, helped create a coal dust advisory committee. It drew up a list of 20 recommendations to improve dust test results. However, McAteer said he "can't have inspectors at the mine every day."

But why would miners themselves cheat on tests that are designed to keep them safe? The awful irony, according to miners who would speak with us, is if they don't cheat, they fear the mines -- and their livelihoods -- will be shut down.

"I's a difference between whether you eat or you don't," said one miner. "It's according to whether you want to put clothes on your kids or shoes on their feet."

Meanwhile, Charles Shepherd says without strong government action, miners who have taken his place underground will still be afraid to speak up when their bosses order them to cheat.

"There's not many people who want to get into a conflict with a powerful coal company, especially a man without any education or without the ability to really defend himself," said Shepherd.

For now, most everyone who works in the Kentucky hills believes the cheating --and the Black Lung -- will go on.

Reported by Rita Braver
©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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