China is grappling with a surge in black lung, which is a result of decades of coal-fired development. The world’s second-largest economy and top coal consumer is just starting to address the problem.
WARNING: Graphic content.
WHEN Stephen Mellor spluttered up a soggy, sticky ball of mucus, he didn’t think much of it. Not even the fact it was a deep black colour.
After all, it was just one of the side effects of working at the hot and backbreaking frontline of Australia’s mining boom. And he was hardly the only one working down the mines in Queensland’s Bowen Basin to have the same sickly affliction.
But with the benefit of hindsight, Mr Mellor now believes every coal-stained cough was the sign a chronic, possibly even deadly, disease was eating away at his lungs.
Last April, he received confirmation he had contracted the medieval-sounding illness black lung. It kills 1000 miners a year in the US, more than 6000 in China, but in Australia it has barely been heard of since the 1960s.
Last week, the first case of black lung in NSW in almost half a century was confirmed.
“You spend your life avoiding diseases, taking precautions, and then I go to work and get a disease that I had never heard of and had apparently been eradicated years ago,” Mr Mellor told news.com.au.
Mr Mellor says he had been thrown on the “scrap heap” and blames systematic failures in the industry for the re-emergence of a disease many thought had been banished to the history books.
Black lung is the common name for coal workers pneumoconiosis (CWP), a disease caused by long-term exposure to coal dust. Fine particles of coal get lodged in the lung and once ingested cannot be dislodged.
The lung can, quite literally, turn black with soot. In severe cases, the disease eats away at the organ itself and can be fatal.
“If you look at someone with severe black lung, the lung looks like a blackened sponge and it suffocates people. It would be a terrible death,” Stephen Smyth, President of the CFMEU’s Queensland mining and energy division said.
By the 1970s, improvements in mine safety and dust monitoring had led to its complete elimination in Australia.
Then, in November 2015, Queensland miner Percy Verrall was unexpectedly diagnosed with the disease. Since then, 18 miners have been confirmed as suffering from black lung.
Some victims, including Mr Verrall, are now severely ill.
Those in the industry fear there are far more cases yet to emerge and that former miners may have died from black lung but were misdiagnosed.
‘DUST WAS EVERYWHERE’
Australia’s coal exports are valued at $55 billion per year and the industry employs 140,000 people. Around 85 per cent of the country’s electricity production comes from coal.
Mr Mellor, from Mackay, described to news.com.au his working conditions in Queensland’s mines.
“We wore the same dust masks underground that people wear around the city. After just an hour, maybe two, they fill up with sweat and dust.”
Beneath the surface, coal dust was everywhere, he said. “You could put your arm up and, in some spots, you wouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of you — the dust was that extreme.
“At the end of the day, you’d come out and you’d be pretty much scrubbing your eye balls and coughing up black phlegm.”
Stephen, who had worked in mining for just over a decade, underwent regular health checks and X-rays but says the telltale clues of black lung were missed.
“I was misdiagnosed. Experts have reviewed my results and they found there were clear signs.”
Mr Smyth said black lung’s recurrence was due to a perfect storm of failures.
“The system has completely and utterly failed. The introduction of self-regulation saw mining companies allowed to have their own doctors, radiologists who were not required to review X-rays to international standards, people who turned a blind eye and a regulator asleep at the wheel.
“We bought all this new machinery to cut coal faster and crush it and what were we doing for the worker?”
A damning 2016 report on black lung, published by Monash University, said radiologists were inadequately trained.
In a submission to an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the disease the Queensland Resources Council (QRC) said they were “stunned when cases began to be identified. And we were even more shocked to find out that the health screening process we relied on … had
drifted to a point of abject failure.”
For more than a year after the first Queensland cases were confirmed, bosses at Coal Services — the industry-owned organisation that provides health services to NSW miners — said major regulatory differences between the states might be enough to prevent black lung from making a NSW comeback.
In 2015, CEO Lucy Fleming said, “in NSW there have been no new cases recorded for decades, a result that did not come by chance but rather the importance that the coal industry places on the health of it workers.”
Last July Ms Fleming said, “The re-emergence of this horrible disease is frightening for workers and their families,” but admitted NSW was not immune from it’s spread.
“It is possible that some cases of black lung could still emerge from those working in the
industry before dust mitigation and health surveillance was enforced.”
On Friday, the NSW Resources Regulator confirmed a former miner who had worked in the industry for decades did indeed have CWP.
Mr Smyth said despite NSW’s monitoring system being one of Australia’s most comprehensive, it was no surprise black lung had spread to the state.
“Dust doesn’t stop at the NSW Queensland border. They had people come out saying they had this great system; well guess what, now NSW needs to review what they have in place.”
A spokeswomen for Coal Services — whose two shareholders are the NSW Minerals Council and the CFMEU — told news.com.au they were, “confident that there are no systemic issues with the current model” of monitoring black lung and their priority was to “protect the NSW coal industry and its workers.”
While they were owned by the coal industry, the organisation insisted their work was independent.
Mr Smyth called on NSW to follow Queensland’s lead and set up a parliamentary inquiry into the disease. The probe has already heard that concerns about black lung were raised with the health minister in 2013, years before the first case.
The CFMEU is also calling for medical staff in Queensland to be independent of mining companies and a levy of 10c per tonne of coal produced to be placed into a black lung compensation fund.
“The industry has been dragged kicking and screaming along with this but it’s time they got off their butt and did their jobs,” he said.
“Workers who can no longer work in the industry need ongoing assistance paid for by the industry. Taxpayers shouldn’t pay for an issue the multinationals have contributed to.”
The QRC said Queensland’s workers compensation scheme did indeed need revising.
A spokesman for the NSW Department of Industry told news.com.au that the NSW had one of the world’s most stringent regulatory regimes when it came to coal dust exposure and an industry compensation fund was already in place.
“While the measures for dust elimination and mitigation and health surveillance are more rigorous than they’ve ever been, the reality is that we can’t change history.
“There could be cases that emerge from the … many years when such rigorous measures were not in place.”
The spokesman said the department would be “carefully monitoring” the Queensland inquiry.
Since his diagnosis, Mr Mellor said life was a struggle.
“I was devastated when I found I had a disease that shouldn’t even exist. Now my career is over, I was on a high wage and now I’m on no wage. I was thrown up from the industry into the scrap heap.
“It pains me to say this, but due to the latency of the disease, there will be hundreds more cases,” he said.
“Blokes are still coming to the surface covered in black spitting up the black mucus.”
Have you been affected by black lung? Let us know, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
At this critical time, when so much coal and coal seam gas expansion is planned in Australia, this film aims to expose the destructiveness of this industry to our climate, communities and environment.