Callous Compassion and Coal Miners

Some 40 years ago, America made a pledge to coal miners to protect them from the dangers from coal mining, chief among them black lung disease. In 1969, a major law was passed, regulators were hired, and monitoring began – except it appears it was all a massive masquerade. This is the kind of mess in public life people want cleaned up. The story about the spread and prevalence of black lung disease among coal miners was done by NPR in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity. They report:

Thousands of coal miners continued to suffer and die from black lung during the 40 years that tough new limits on exposure to coal dust were supposed to provide protection.

Control of the mine dust was plagued by weak enforcement by regulators and loopholes exploited by mining companies…

In the mid-1990s, medical experts began noticing an increase in diagnoses, along with disease in younger miners and rapid progression to severe stages of sickness.

The trend is most acute in a triangular region of Appalachia that includes eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia and southwestern Virginia.

The law went to great lengths to set up rules and procedures for monitoring mines, imposing fines, and demanding fixes. But, as reported, “NPR and CPI have found widespread and persistent gaming of the system designed to measure and control exposure.” In other words, industry and others went to great lengths to run around the law, while government regulators stood flat footed.

This is not simply something historical to bemoan. Rather, it goes to the very heart of what Americans are calling for in society today. First, we must act with greater compassion, which means actually following through on our stated goals. Otherwise, let’s come clean on what we will – and will not – do and go from there. Empty promises create false hope; false hope leads to cynicism.

Second, stop using people as pawns in political battles. While industry and the government played footsie, people’s lives were destroyed. Game-playing at the expense of people only results in people losing faith and confidence in society to protect them and to create the conditions where people can prosper.

Third, a leader today would gain enormous trust (and perhaps even some acclaim) if they were to stand up and tell the truth about what has happened since 1969, where we are today, and what is needed moving forward. But here’s a warning: you’re better off saying nothing, than adding to the masquerade.

Fourth, there is the question of the miners themselves. We must not turn our backs on them now. True compassion requires action.

Americans are yearning to deal with the reality of situations facing us. Currently, that doesn’t necessarily mean answers will always or easily follow; gridlock persists. But being real always beats a masquerade.