coal mining

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The tiny community of Bokoshe is flanked by old mines, which companies are filling with thousands of tons of waste produced by the coal-fired power plant down the road.

The coal waste — known as coal ash, or fly ash — is a powdery, pernicious dust that blows off trucks and pits. Residents worry about breathing the ash, fear it has contaminated local water supplies and have linked it to various medical problems, including cancer.

In the second of two reports, NPR looks at the causes of a dramatic spike in progressive massive fibrosis, the most serious stage of the coal miners' disease, black lung. The spike also could stress the federal black lung benefits program, which is already struggling. (Read and listen to the first story here).

Without congressional intervention, about 16,000 retired miners in seven states will lose their health care coverage by the end of the year.

A proposal to temporarily extend the benefits is working its way through Congress. But two Senate Democrats, who are advocates for a more comprehensive plan, say the temporary provision isn't enough.

They are threatening to hold up a spending bill that needs to pass by Friday night to keep the government running.

Citing concerns over pricing and pollution, the Obama administration on Friday unveiled a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands. The change won't affect existing leases, which generated nearly $1.3 billion for the government last year.

The Department of the Interior says it wants to make sure the money it's charging for coal leases takes into account both market prices and what's often called the "social costs" of coal — its impact on climate change and public health.

The agency says federal lands account for roughly 40 percent of all U.S. coal production.

Joe Moore stood near a sign reading: "Authorized Personnel Only."

"I used to be authorized," he said.

Moore is a coal miner. The sign was at the entrance to the mine that had laid him off the previous day. The Alliance Coal facility had closed — a symptom of the coal industry's rapid decline.

Jack Blankenship was pinned facedown in the dirt, his neck, shoulder and back throbbing with pain.

He was alone on an errand, in a dark tunnel a mile underground at the Aracoma Alma coal mine in Logan County, W.Va., when a 300-pound slab of rock peeled away from the roof and slammed him to the ground. As his legs grew numb, he managed to free an arm and reach his radio. For two hours, he pressed the panic button that was supposed to bring help quickly.

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Sonya Song / Flickr

In May of last year, it looked like impoverished areas of eastern Oklahoma would be getting a lifeline. Coal mining, once a vital industry there, appeared to be headed for a comeback thanks to booming international demand.

Local residents were excited about the prospect of hundreds of new jobs when StateImpact first visited Heavener, but the mining project has stalled.

Ouro Mining Company’s massive Heavener Project along the Oklahoma-Arkansas border was supposed to be producing coal — and jobs — by now. In April 2013, locals in Heavener, like waitress Leslea Absire, couldn’t wait.