Prove your humanity

This story was first published on February 22, 2019

In December, an NPR and Frontline investigation revealed that regulators didn’t act when they could have to stop the exposure of thousands of coal miners to toxic silica dust.

NPR reporter Howard Berkes and a team of reporters discovered there’s now an epidemic of black lung disease caused by that dust. They identified more than 2,000 coal miners suffering from the disease from 2011-2016 in five Appalachian states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia. A federal monitoring program reported just 99 cases.

The disease is fatal. Bernard Carlson, who worked in mines in Somerset and Westmoreland counties in western Pennsylvania, has it.

“No matter how you filter, no matter what they filter, the fine stuff is what gets in there and cuts you up,” Carlson told Berkes. “And it ain’t coming out. Once it gets in there, it ain’t coming out. The black stuff sometimes will. But that fine silica dust? Uh-uh. You’re done.”

Berkes and his team found Carlson and other miners after their research on advanced black lung disease cases led to a simple question.

“…I’d been wondering, how could this happen?” Berkes said. “If the regulatory system that was supposed to protect these miners had been working, it shouldn’t have happened.”

The Allegheny Front’s Reid Frazier spoke with Berkes about the story, and how miners like Carlson reflect on how practices in coal mines caused them to contract this deadly form of black lung disease.

The full conversation can be heard in the latest episode of StateImpact Pennsylvania’s ‘energy, explained’ podcast.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among The Allegheny Front, WPSU, WITF and WHYY to cover the commonwealth's energy economy.