CHARLESTON, W. Va. (AP) — Half a century ago, the nation’s top health experts urged the federal agency responsible for mine safety to enact strict rules to protect miners from toxic rock dust.
The inaction since then – fueled by denials and lobbying from coal and other industries – has contributed to the premature deaths of thousands of miners from pneumoconiosis, commonly known as “black lung.” The problem has only grown in recent years as miners dig through more and more layers of rock to get to less accessible coal, creating deadly silica dust.
A former regulator called the lack of protection against silica-related illnesses “stunning” and one of the most “catastrophic” occupational health failures in US history.
Now the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has proposed a rule that would cut the current silica exposure limit in half — a major win for safety advocates. But there is skepticism and concern about the government pushing ahead after years of broken promises and delays.
James Bounds, a retired coal miner from Oak Hill, West Virginia, said nothing could be done to reverse the debilitating illness that plagued him in 1984 at age 37. But he doesn’t want others to suffer the same fate.
“It’s not going to help me — I’m through mining,” says Bounds, 75, who now uses supplemental oxygen to breathe. “But we don’t want these young kids to breathe like we do.”
The rule, published this month in the Federal Register, lowers the permissible exposure limit for silica dust from 100 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air for an 8-hour shift in coal, metal and nonmetal mines such as sand and gravel.
The proposal is consistent with exposure levels mandated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for the construction and other non-mining industries. And it’s the standard recommended by the Centers for Disease Control way back in 1974.
Silicosis is an occupational pneumoconiosis caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust present in minerals such as sandstone. The U.S. Department of Labor began studying silica and its impact on worker health in the 1930s, but the focus on stopping exposure in the workplace largely bypassed miners.
Instead, the regulations focused on coal dust, a separate hazard created by crushing or pulverizing coal rock that also contributes to black lungs.
In the decades since, silica dust has become a major problem, as miners in the Appalachians cut through layers of sandstone to reach less accessible coal seams in mountaintop mines, where coal closer to the surface had long been tapped. Silica dust is 20 times more toxic than coal dust and causes severe forms of black lung disease even after a few years of exposure.
It is estimated that one in five permanent miners in Central Appalachia has black lung disease; one in 20 has the most disabling form of black lung.
Miners are also diagnosed at a younger age – some in their 30s and others with the advanced kind in their 40s. “That’s just crazy,” said Dr. Carl Werntz, a West Virginia doctor who performs black lung tests and described the cases as “skyrocketing.”
Cecil Roberts, president of United Mine Workers of America, said there is no reason a 35-year-old miner should be diagnosed with a disease “that is going to cost him his life”.
“Nobody should have to die because of a job they have,” Roberts said.
Existing Federal Mine Safety Agency silica standards were developed in the 1970s, around the time of the U.S. Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.
Pat McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University who was part of a state team investigating the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster that killed 29 miners, called the black lung resurgence “unparalleled” when it comes to occupational health problems. At the Upper Big Branch mine, 71% of the 24 miners who underwent autopsies were found to have black lung.
“I can’t think of an occupation where such devastation has been wrought that has been ignored” by businesses and the government, he said. “It’s amazing.”
The new rule is supported by Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey and John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, and Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, who pushed for the change and released a joint statement saying that miners being protected from “dangerous levels of silica can’t wait.” ”
The Mine Safety and Health Administration will collect comments on the proposal through Aug. 28, with three hearings scheduled in Arlington, Virginia, Beckley, West Virginia and Denver.
One problem that is expected to arise: the use of respiratory protective equipment.
The National Mining Association, which represents mining operators, wants workers to be allowed to use respirators as a method of complying with the rule.
“These are recognized industrial hygiene practices used by “federal regulators in other industries,” but not mining,” said spokesman Conor Bernstein, adding that better ventilation controls, safety awareness and coal dust regulations have all contributed to “exponentially lower dust levels” in U.S. mines in recent years.
However, the Miners’ Union and others say respirators are ineffective at performing heavy labor in hot, confined spaces common in mines. The proposed rule allows the use of respirators on a temporary basis while operators perform engineering checks. But proponents say inspectors aren’t around often enough to ensure they don’t become a permanent solution.
“The history of miner safety and health enforcement teaches us that exceptions become the rule,” said Sam Petsonk, a West Virginia lawyer who represented miners who were diagnosed with black lung after operators knowingly broke the rules.
The proposed rule also includes a provision that would allow companies to self-report silica levels. Federal inspectors perform spot checks to ensure accuracy, but mine operators still have leeway to manipulate reporting data, said Willie Dodson, Central Appalachian field coordinator for Appalachian Voices, an advocacy group.
Ideally, federal inspectors should take samples day after day at a given mine to determine compliance, he said.
A coal dust investigator who worked for a mining company in Kentucky was sentenced last month to six months in prison for faking dust samples and lying to federal officials.
In rural Nickelsville, Virginia, near the Tennessee line, Vonda Robinson says miners and their families are more accountable to the federal government and mine operators. Her husband John was diagnosed with a black lung about ten years ago at the age of 47. Now his doctors say he needs a lung transplant.
Vonda Robinson said her husband doesn’t know what to say when his 5-year-old granddaughter asks why he can’t run and play with her, why he gets physically exhausted even at the end of the driveway.
“He’ll say to her, ‘Honey, Daddy can’t do that,'” she said.
During his 28 years of mining, John Robinson would come home with his face covered in dust. But she tried not to worry. Everyone in the community mined coal.
“He was one of those who wanted to get into the mines to give his family the American dream __ the nice house, the vehicles, take our kids to college,” she said. “And this is what he got.”
–Daly reported from Washington.
Top photo: Retired miner James Bounds, who has pneumoconiosis, commonly known as “black lung,” poses for a photo at his home in Oak Hill, W.Va., Thursday, July 13, 2023. Bounds said nothing can be done to reverse the debilitating disease he was diagnosed with in 1984 at age 37. But he doesn’t want others to suffer the same fate. (AP Photo/Chris Jackson)
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