"There's just no doubt in my mind that we have a problem here that we have to fix," Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in a recent interview. "People are still getting black lung in this country."
Black lung, or coal workers' pneumoconiosis, is a collection of debilitating and potentially fatal ailments caused by breathing coal dust. In 1969, Congress made eliminating the disease a national priority, with a law that required coal operators to take steps to limit exposure. The law greatly reduced black lung among the nation's miners. Still, nearly 10,000 coal miners nationwide have died in the last decade from black lung.
More recently, scientists have found that black lung is on the rise again. Researchers have warned of a doubling of black lung rates since 1997, and of a rise in the disease among younger miners whose entire careers took place under the 1969 dust limits.
Under the law, mine operators are required to use elaborate ventilation systems and water sprays to control the buildup of coal dust to prevent black lung and protect against fires and explosions. Generally, mine operators are allowed to use respirators only to supplement proper ventilation and other controls, not as a substitute for such protections.
In part because of state laws limiting lawsuits directly against employers, miners with black lung have filed hundreds of suits against MSA and 3M Corp., alleging faulty respirators they used in the mines did not provide the protection promised by the manufacturers.
The new legal complaint filed by MSA involves the case of Dotson, who has worked for a variety of Massey operations since 1995. In January 2006, Dotson was a foreman at the Aracoma Mine when the deadly fired occurred. State inspectors cited Dotson personally for ventilation violations that played a major role in the deaths of miners Ellery Hatfield and Don Bragg.
Earlier this year, Dotson sued MSA, alleging that faulty respirators played a role in his developing serious lung disease.
But in its complaint, MSA noted more than 4,700 violations related to ventilation and coal dust at Massey's Aracoma Mine during the decade that Dotson worked there. The complaint noted dozens more violations at other Massey operations where Dotson was employed.
"If defendant Dotson is injured as he alleges, said injuries are the direct and proximate result of unlawfully hazardous working conditions to which defendant employers subjected plaintiff Dotson," the MSA complaint says.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.