By Jon Delano

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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Some might think the coal industry is declining and struggling, but that’s just not so, says one expert.

“The output of coal in this country has not really dropped very much since even the 1980s, so we’re still producing a lot of coal,” says West Virginia University professor Dr. Michael McCawley. “We’re using fewer miners to do it.”

At a taping of the Sunday Business Page on Thursday morning with KDKA money editor Jon Delano, McCawley says even with fewer miners, those who work in the coal mines are still susceptible to black lung disease.

“It’s a slow suffocation process,” he said.

McCawley compares black lung to waterboarding.

“In waterboarding, what’s the problem? Well, you think you’re not going to be able to breathe and so you’re going to die,” he said. “What’s the problem with black lung? Well, you’re not going to be able to breathe, so you think you’re going to die.”

And the situation is getting worse.

“Even though for about a 30-year period after the passage of the first Coal Mine Safety and Health Act, coal workers’ pneumocociosis, black lung, was dropping,” McCawley said. “Suddenly in about 2000, they started seeing an uptick in the number of cases.”

Delano: “So why is that happening? Why are we seeing more black lung disease today in 2019?”
McCawley: “Well, first of all, the mining equipment really has changed a lot in the last 50 years. Of course, now that we have these long wall coal operations, we produce a lot more coal. Well, when you produce a lot more coal, you can produce a lot more coal dust. And the machinery is a lot more powerful than it used to be as well. We’re concerned because as you produce more powerful machinery, you can cut more rock along with the coal. The rock contains silica, and that may be a major influence in why you see black lung.”

McCawley says the key is high-tech equipment, now being developed, to warn miners immediately of harmful air and then protect them from breathing it.