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black lung

The nation's top coal mine safety regulator told members of Congress on Thursday that existing safety regulations are sufficient to protect miners from toxic dust, despite calls for change amid an epidemic of advanced black lung disease among coal miners in Appalachia.

Assistant Secretary of Labor David Zatezalo, testifying before the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, said sampling from coal mines shows a 99% compliance rate with rules designed to limit workers' exposure to silica, the dust blamed for the disease outbreak.

Thousands of coal miners are dying from an advanced form of black lung disease, and federal regulators could have prevented it if they had paid closer attention to their own data.

That's the conclusion of a joint NPR/Frontline investigation that aired last month and continues Tuesday night on PBS.

Greg Kelly's grandson, Caden, scampers to the tree-shaded creek behind his grandfather's house to catch crawdads, as Kelly shuffles along, trying to keep up. Kelly's small day pack holds an oxygen tank with a clear tube clipped to his nose. He has chairs spaced out on the short route so he can stop every few minutes, sit down and catch his breath, until he has enough wind and strength to start out again for the creek.

Craig Elliott in Zanesville.
Nick Evans

In Zanesville Tuesday morning, coal miners file up to a mobile clinic for black lung disease screening.

It's a large delivery truck with a small doctor’s office built in the back. The miners wander up in ones and twos. Many are retired and they creak up and down the small staircase gingerly.

Miners walk into the mobile health clinic as it makes a stop in Morgantown, West Virgina.
National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health / Twitter

A mobile health clinic is touring different coal towns in Ohio to help miners find out if they have black lung disease. The goal is to detect the disease early before it gets worse.

One in five working coal miners in central Appalachia who have worked at least 25 years now suffer from the coal miners' disease black lung. That's the finding from the latest study tracking an epidemic of the incurable and fatal sickness.

A new government report says that the federal black lung trust fund that helps sick and dying coal miners pay living and medical expenses could incur a $15 billion deficit in the next 30 years. That's if a congressionally mandated funding cut occurs as planned at the end of the year.

More coal miners in central Appalachia have suffered the advanced stages of the deadly disease black lung than previous government research has found, and more miners working in the region today have earlier stages of the disease.

Those are two of the findings in a bundle of studies released Tuesday and expected to be released soon, which focus on the epidemic of black lung disease first reported by NPR in 2016.

Rural medical clinics that are struggling to respond to an epidemic of a fatal lung disease plaguing coal miners received a 40 percent boost in federal funding with the passage of the omnibus spending bill last week.

Updated on Feb. 6 at 3:49 p.m. ET

Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health say they've identified the largest cluster of advanced black lung disease ever reported, a cluster that was first uncovered by NPR 14 months ago.

NPR's ongoing investigation of the advanced stage of the fatal lung disease that afflicts coal miners has identified an additional 1,000 cases in Appalachia.

That brings the NPR count of progressive massive fibrosis, the most serious stage of the disease known as black lung, to nearly 2,000 cases in the region, all of which were diagnosed since 2010.