Black Lung Rising.
July 16, 2009 10:09 AM   Subscribe

Black Lung Rising. "When coal miners suffering from black lung reach the point where they can no longer dig coal and they meet guidelines such as working the required number of years exposed to coal dust, they become eligible to file a black lung claim to obtain monthly benefits to live on ... When the decision is made to award a miner monthly benefits, the coal company has the right to appeal that decision, and often does."

"Coal miners will tell you that they love their job. They come to terms with the dangers involved. They are loyal to their company and do the work needed to supply the fuel that lights up this country.

"All they ask in return is that justice be served."
posted by grabbingsand (16 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Fuck the coal companies. Those poor miners trying to be "honorable" don't listen to a hundred years of folk songs...

Artist: John Prine
Song: Paradise

When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.

And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away

Well, sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Adrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.

Repeat Chorus:

Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.

Repeat Chorus:

When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
posted by notsnot at 10:21 AM on July 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

I owe my soul to the company store.
posted by jabberjaw at 10:30 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

This really saddens me. I work in the mining industry (not in coal, however) and I know that every reasonable precaution is taken to ensure everyone working here is safe. I'm on night shift at the moment and I know that if I felt far too tired, I could call up the shift boss and go home because he would rather lose a bit of productivity than take a chance on something happening because I'm too tired to drive properly.

This kind of behaviour, on the part of the company and the law firm, is despicable and has no place in our world, especially not in a country that is meant to be leading the way forward.

Once more, it just comes down to people putting dollar signs ahead of people's lives, and it sickens me every time.
posted by twirlypen at 10:38 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

If it's cheaper to kill people than to save them, any economically rational company will kill them. Doing anything else is a suboptimal decision.

This is where the capital-L Libertarians get it completely wrong -- they think the "free market" will magically bring these abuses into line by, basically, shame. But that clearly won't work in this case, because the people who CARE about the problem are poor coal miners, and the customers of the coal company don't give a flying fuck about the workers, they just want cheap coal. Wanting anything OTHER than cheap coal is not rational. They're looking out for their own self-interest. Their self-interest is cheap coal, and fuck the workers.

And us? Our self-interest is cheap power, and fuck the workers. We have more empathy for the coal workers than companies do, but even if we're stupid and work against our own self-interest by objecting to coal miner treatment, these "market-based" remedies can easily be dodged by name changes, or ownership changes, or re-incorporation, or simple deception. When you're in a worldwide economy of 6 billion, being effectively anonymous to the end-user is dirt-simple... and if you're unlucky enough to get nailed by muckrakers, you change your name, promise that things will be different, and change nothing substantive. Everyone forgets within a year, and it's back to business as normal.

Our little monkey minds are simply not capable of tracking that many relationships. It's trivially easy to avoid the limited reputation tracking we ARE capable of. That's why we need organized institutions -- governments -- to regulate and keep track for us, because we simply don't have the time. Our biggest problem with this is that we hand too MUCH power to these agencies; every year, they to grab a little more power, often with the best of intentions, which leads to abuse. We desperately need to work on that -- we're not functioning very well anymore as a society. But a fully free-market system would be far, far worse.

This is why I'm a lowercase-l libertarian.
posted by Malor at 10:52 AM on July 16, 2009 [10 favorites]

This is why I'm a lowercase-l libertarian.

Wow, that's an odd conclusion from the rest of your comment.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:56 AM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wish the bigwigs who are suddenly pushing for "clean coal" would have to spend a few weeks planting trees and stabilizing the soil on the stripped and exploded plateaus were mountaintops used to be, then finish up by caring for people very slowly dying of black lung disease.

The coal business never has been clean, in more ways than one, and mere sequestration will not solve that problem.
posted by adipocere at 10:58 AM on July 16, 2009

My best buddy works for a beltway bandit that has branched into mine safety from defense contracting. The government has mandated that coal mines update their emergency communication systems in the wake of several disasters where miners died because the existing communication systems didn't work very well , or at all.

Anyway, he's been at, and in, the coal mines of West Virginia/Virginia/ Kentucky/Tennessee probably 2-3 days a week for the last six months.

He has come away with two impressions that he's mentioned 10 million times. The first is that coal miners are some of the hardest working people he's ever met. The second is, and I quote, "If it doesn't dig coal, the mine owners don't want to spend any money on it."

They are solely concerned with getting coal out of the ground. Every thing else, including the miners, is secondary.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:02 AM on July 16, 2009 [3 favorites]

Jaltcoh: Wow, that's an odd conclusion from the rest of your comment.

Well, I didn't want to make it any longer. I DO believe in free markets in some ways, very strongly. There are some things that they're incredibly good at... primarily, detecting and discarding bad ideas, which is a fundamental process we have completely short-circuited over the last twenty years. We're doing it again now -- Mr. Market has detected a whole bunch of bullshit, and is trying desperately to remove the bad players and the bad ideas from the system, but we're refusing to allow that happen.

I've been... well, let's just say "rather verbose" about these ideas in the past. Some of the libertarian positions are largely or completely correct. But they're not terribly relevant to this thread, so there's not a lot of reason to go deeply into them here.
posted by Malor at 11:22 AM on July 16, 2009

The next time you hear that renewable sources of energy can't compete with coal because coal is so cheap, think about this story. This kind of abuse is one of the many unfortunate reasons why coal is so cheap.

If there were real pollution controls, if coal miners were paid decent wages, if the coal wasn't in places that are almost uniformly impoverished, and if the coal companies hadn't been built on and maintained by the exploitation of workers, maybe it wouldn't be so cheap.
posted by jedicus at 11:36 AM on July 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

We are not operating well as an oligarchy. Alas, our consciences interfere with our ability to just trade lives for coal, so we use the suboptimal system of paying "compensation" to these people, if only to allow ourselves the luxury of sleep. When we pay too much, it's even more vexing. The oligarchic-kleptocracy is not very good at concealing this brigandage. That's why we need organized institutions--governments--to control the message and make the workers feel like they have a voice. Our aristocrats are just lacking credibility at this point. That's why I'm a lowercase-f feudalist, which is really just libertarianism with a dash of intellectual honesty.
posted by Hylas at 12:05 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

The next time you hear that renewable sources of energy can't compete with coal because coal is so cheap, think about this story.

Well, it's complicated. Very. The real reason why renewable sources of energy can't compete against coal is that they are simply too diffuse to concentrate into a form useful to industrial society (aka electricity). It's the law of thermodynamics. From one of several essays I posted a while back:

"[...] where energy is concerned, concentration counts for much more than quantity. That’s a function of the second law of thermodynamics: energy in a whole system always moves from high concentrations to low. Within the system, you can get energy moving against the flow of entropy, but only at the cost of reducing a larger amount or higher concentration of energy to waste heat. That’s how fossil fuels came into existence in the first place; the vast majority of hundreds of millions of years of energy from sunlight falling on prehistoric plants were degraded to waste heat and radiated into outer space, and in the process a very small fraction of that sunlight was concentrated in the form of carbon compounds and buried underground."

I'm afraid we're going to see more and more of our energy coming from coal in the coming years as oil production winds down, and god knows what that will mean for miners, let alone our air, water, soil, etc. etc.
posted by symbollocks at 1:25 PM on July 16, 2009

Whenever I hear about black lung, I'm transported back to the 4th grade, going through the dictionary in the school library trying to find the mythical "biggest word ever".

And sure enough, there it was: Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

Of course, now I know that it was invented specifically to be a really long word, but still, as a kid, that kind of thing was magical.
posted by quin at 3:24 PM on July 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Makes me think of the Cowboy Junkies...

"We are miners, hard rock miners
To the shaft house we must go
Pour your bottles on our shoulders
We are marching to the slow

On the line boys, on the line boys
Drill your holes and stand in line
'til the shift boss comes to tell you
You must drill her out on top

Can't you feel the rock dust in your lungs?
It'll cut down a miner when he is still young
Two years and the silicosis takes hold
And I feel like I'm dying from mining for gold

Yes, I feel like I'm dying from mining for gold
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:12 PM on July 16, 2009

30 Days did an episode where Morgan was a coal miner for 30 days. The episode is on Hulu.

What I remember from the show:
1) Coal mining is very, very hard work and very, very dirty work. At the end of the day it looked like they had been rolling in soot.
2) If you live in a small mining town, there were not a lot of other jobs beside working in the mine. (For men anyway, I don't know what the women did but they didn't seem work in the mine.)
3) There are masks that the miners can wear to cut down on the dust they inhale, but they masks are cumbersome and get in the way so almost no one wears them
posted by nooneyouknow at 4:27 PM on July 16, 2009

My grandpa got a death sentence from the black lung when he was in his 30s. He moved from eastern Kentucky out to the tent city of Phoenix, Arizona, to die. He lived another 45 years and had a long career at the tire plant in Goodyear. I never heard him say a word about coal mining, but he sure liked being out in the desert sun.

Makes me wonder about the coal-miner song lyrics, especially my favorite of them all, which just seems like impossible bullshit because who would like that?
It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where danger is double and pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.

It's a-many a man I have seen in my day,
Who lived just to labor his whole life away.
Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine,
A man will have lust for the lure of the mines.
Very great, poetic and weird song by Merle Travis. But I don't think anybody ever went down in those mines because it had become a habit. It was work, the only regular work in eastern Kentucky. It sucked then and it sucks now. I do hope Nobama gets the renewable energy stuff going in Appalachia fairly soon, and maybe we can quit blowing apart mountaintops to get coal to burn dirty.
posted by kenlayne at 10:19 PM on July 16, 2009

Not sure if you'll see this, kenlayne, but I disagree. There is a very strong culture of brotherhood (or peoplehood, now that there are more and more women working) in the mining industry. Perhpas it's like old soldiers who instantly have a little more respect for someone who served- despite the fact that they were being shot and living in horrible conditions. There's a perverse kind of pride in doing something hard, something dirty, something dangerous. A miner goes hundreds of metres underground to work long, long hours in hot, stuffy, often cramped conditions, and does so with people who are more than colleagues, more than friends- your life often depends upon their doing their job properly, as theirs does on you.

I'm not planning to stay in this industry forever, but I'm definitely glad that I've seen it, that I've worked underground in the heat and the much and the dust, for twelve or thirteen hours, overnight, to bring up a few thousand more tonnes of rock to make something that the rest of the planet uses everyday without a thought as to where it came from or how it was made. There's something fundamentally real about this kind of work, and Already (only a few months in) I know I'll forever share some kind of a bond with others who've worked underground.

'It sucked then and it sucks now'... perhaps. The conditions where I work are certainly better than those described in the article, but would still 'suck' for many people. I don't do it because it's easy or fun, I do it because there is a fundamental appeal, to me, in hard work at the raw end of the world.
posted by twirlypen at 7:04 AM on July 20, 2009

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