Monday Roundup: Black Lung ‘Epidemic’

NPR reports on black lung epidemic this evening • The Senate race in North Dakota is tight • Rice farmers, and others, struggle in Texas • Farm Bill faces trouble in the House

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The Center for Public Integrity, the Charleston Gazette and National Public Radio’s Howard Berkes have written a series on the return of black lung, the breath-shortening disease caused by inhaling coal dust. 

The first laws aimed at ridding coal mines of coal dust were passed over 40 years ago, after a massive strike by coal miners in the Appalachian coalfields. “In 1969, I publicly proclaimed that the disease would go away before we learned more about it,” said Dr. Donald Rasmussen, a pioneer in recognizing and diagnosing black lung who, at age 84, is still practicing medicine in Beckley, W.Va. “I was dead wrong.”

Chuck Hamby reports that “black lung is back,” a result of inaction by federal and state governments. Companies are cheating on the monitoring systems designed to check the presence of coal dust, and government regulators aren’t enforcing the law, Hamby and NPR have found. 

From 1968 to 2007, black lung killed 75,000 miners. Rates declined after the 1969 law was passed. But in the late 1990s, that trend reversed. Hamby writes:

Many of the newer cases have taken a particularly ugly form. While rates of black lung overall have increased, incidence of the most severe, fast-progressing type has jumped significantly. These cases, moreover, are occurring in younger and younger miners. Of particular concern are “hot spots” identified in central Appalachia by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, NIOSH, a government research agency.

“I think any reasonable epidemiologist would have to consider this an epidemic,” said NIOSH’s Scott Laney.

On Monday morning, Hamby reports on how coal companies circumvent the rules governing coal dust. For example, a miner required to wear a device that would measure coal dust over an 8-hour shift  told Hamby that a foreman would routinely take the device and hang it in a part of the mine with cleaner air.  Some devices are put in lunch pails. Miners are warned about federal inspectors so they can clean up dusty sections.

Hamby reports that “the system for monitoring dust is almost designed not to detect problems.” And the federal mine safety agency has been slow to react to violations even when they are found.

From 2000 to 2011, the agency collected 53,000 samples that violated coal dust rules. But the agency issued fewer than 2,400 citations for violations.

Listen to NPR’s report this afternoon on All Things Considered. It should air just after 5 pm Eastern.

• You might wonder why Congress doesn’t act if it is faced with an “epidemic” of black lung. Well, it did, but not for the good of miners.

Ken Ward Jr. writes that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposed new rules that would reduce miners’ exposure to coal dust. But in December 2011, the House added language to the budget bill that barred the agency from implementing or enforcing these new rules.

It sounds very much like what happened to the rules proposed by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration governing the power packers have over the meat markets. The House simply barred the use of any federal money to implement those rules.

In the coalfields, then, there is an epidemic of black lung, but new rules that could stem this truly horrible disease have been blocked by Republicans (and maybe some Democrats, too) in the House.

• The current Farm Bill before the House Ag Committee fails to fund rural development. The National Association of Counties is mounting a campaign to have this funding included in the House version of the bill.

To sign this petition, go here.

•In North Dakota, there’s a Senate race in addition to the presidential election, and it’s all taking place in the midst of an economic boom. That has separated the political debate from the economy, the Washington Post reports

Republicans had expected to win easily the seat being vacated by Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat. That isn’t happening. Former attorney general Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat, is doing well against Rep. Rick Berg. In fact, she’s leading in the latest poll.

Maybe it’s her pink ostrich boots.

• We tell our kids that they need to learn science and technology to get a good job. Turns out that the hardest jobs to fill are those demanding skilled trades — carpenters and plumbers. 

There is no disdain in European countries for the skilled trades. There, kids can get a good education for these jobs. We should take a hint. 

•The presidential campaign is centering on Virginia, where both sides have opened dozens of regional offices. 

• AP is reporting that there is no chance for major compromise in Congress before the presidential election. And that could hang up the Farm Bill. 

“Nor is there much prospect for immediate compromise on a farm bill, meaning the likeliest outcome is a one-year or two-year extension of current programs that puts off difficult decisions over spending cuts,” the AP reports.

• The Politico has a very good rundown on the various commodity winners and losers in the Senate Farm Bill — and how they might fare in the House. 

• Finally on the Farm Bill front, The Hill reports that House Democrats are reacting with rage to cuts in the House Agriculture Committee’s version of the bill. 

Democrat Collin Peterson, the top D on the committee, went along with $16 billion in cuts to food stamp programs, and that has driven others in his party into a state of real mad. “This bill increases subsidies to millionaires. This is a bill that robs the poor to pay the rich,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (Connecticut) told the Hill Friday. “This bill is an outrage.”

A group of liberal members plans a press conference Friday. Peterson said a coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans could defeat the bill on the floor.

Remember, the old Farm Bill expires September 30.

• The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports that one in forty people in Minnesota has a permit to carry a handgun. That’s 103,000 people, more than 10 times the number a decade ago. 

“They, in turn, are part of a growing ‘carry’ culture across the country: a record 8 million people who have taken on the means to use deadly force if they decide it’s necessary,” reports Larry Oakes.

• The cities upstream on the Colorado River in Texas need the water, so they are cutting off rice farmers downstream. 

Asher Price of the Austin newspaper has a good story on the big shrink of the rice business in the lower Colorado basin. Normally, 24,000 acres in Matagorda County are planted in rice; this year, it will be about 1,500 acres. He explains:

Because their land largely is insured, many rice farmers are not hurting. (Others in the river basin are on groundwater or have special contracts with the LCRA that allow them to grow rice.) But in ways small and large, the consequences of what amounts to a no-rice year reverberate.

The woman who sells diesel oil for farm equipment; the pilots who eke out commissions spraying fungicide from tiny duster planes; the chicken farmer who buys rice hulls, the protective layer of the grain, for litter; the calf-cattle rancher who buys the bran, the hard outer bit that gets polished off when rice is made white, for cattle feed — these people all find business is off as the rice crop has dwindled.

• The New York Times asks if organic food has been taken over by Big Food. 

Stephanie Strom makes a good argument that the standards being set for calling food “organic” cater to big business. She follows Michael Potter, who runs the organic foods producer Eden Foods, who contends that most organic producers are owned by the likes of Pepsi, Kellogg and ConAgra. And he says the National Organic Standards Board caters to these corporations.

“They think I’m liberal, immature, a radical,” Mr. Potter says. “But I’m not the one debating whether organics should use genetically modified additives or nanotechnology, which is what I’d call radical.” 

• The Keystone XL pipeline has a big backer in Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, the Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin reports

“All I care about is working right now to get the most jobs for Montanans, and Keystone is a part of that solution,” Baucus said in an interview. “To me, it’s a no-brainer. . . . People at home, they want this.”

An October poll found that 64 percent of Montanans agreed with him.

 

 

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