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Federal mine safety agency proposes long-awaited rule to combat black lung pandemic

To be diagnosed with Black Lung disease, many miners undergo chest x-rays inside the mobile NIOSH clinic. The technician showed a demonstration x-ray she made using what she had on hand: pocket change.
Justin Hicks
/
LPM
To be diagnosed with Black Lung disease, many miners undergo chest x-rays inside the mobile NIOSH clinic. The technician showed a demonstration x-ray she made using what she had on hand: pocket change.

After decades of waiting, advocates for miners with black lung disease secured a victory on Friday. The Mine Safety and Health Administration finally released a proposal to limit the legal limit for the amount of silica dust mine workers are exposed to.

Silica dust exposure has been linked to a surge in black lung cases in Appalachian coal mines where workers now have to cut through more rock to get at what little coal is left.

Currently, the silica dust limit for coal miners is 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The new rule seeks to set it at 50 micrograms – the longstanding limit for workers in every single other job in the country.

But the dust is involved in all sorts of mining, so the agency is also proposing that the rule apply to all types of mines.

“It's a unified standard that applies to all miners no matter what commodity or what they're mining for,” said Chris Williamson, assistant secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. "The Mine Safety Act [of 1977] says…the first priority and concern of everyone in the mining industry, must be the safety and health of its most precious resource: the miner. It doesn't say a coal miner or silver miner or a gold miner or someone who works at a cement plant.”

The agency is also proposing to require medical testing of miners at non-coal mines. That’s been a requirement at coal mines for years, despite them now making up less than 10% of all mines in the U.S.

Continuous personal dust monitors are used to protect workers from harmful particles that cause Black Lung.
Justin Hicks
Continuous personal dust monitors are used to protect workers from harmful particles that cause Black Lung.

Prior to the new proposal, MSHA officials resisted lowering silica dust standards for decades, despite multiple recommendations, reports from doctors and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and a joint investigation by NPR and Frontline.

“Every time we tried to do something, they’d keep on cutting it off,” said Gary Hairston, president of the National Black Lung Association. “It seemed like they were never in a hurry to get nothing done on the coal miner’s part. We ain’t got nobody in Washington that’ll talk for us...the [coal] company has got people up there every day of the week.”

Hairston said Friday was “a very good day.” But he’s still concerned the agency may not be able to enforce it.

“It’s still going to be hard to get it enforced because they don’t really have enough inspectors to enforce it,” Hairston said.

Vonda Robinson, with the black lung advocacy group, echoed Hairston’s cautious optimism. She said she hopes MSHA will continue campaigns that educate miners on their unique rights in the workplace under federal law.

“I’m so happy!” she said. “But we’ve got things still to work on and we’re going to get there, we are.”

Williamson, the MSHA assistant secretary, said the agency announced the rule a little before it’s officially posted in the federal register so people could have more time to review it. Once it is posted, there will be a 45-day public comment period online.

The agency originally only planned to host two public hearings – one in Arlington, VA and another in Denver, CO.

Dana Kuhnline, program manager for Reimagine Appalachia, said she was “perplexed” by the locations of the hearings since they aren’t in Central Appalachia, where black lung disease has been most prevalent.

At the time, Williamson said the locations were chosen because MSHA headquarters are located in Arlington, and Denver is a central location for mines in the west to attend. He stressed that people would also be able to participate online.

On July 13, the day when the rule was formally published in the federal register, a third hearing location was announced in Beckley, WV.

"In response to requests from the public, MSHA decided to add a third public hearing at our National Mine Health and Safety Academy in West Virginia," a spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. "This will give stakeholders and members of the mining community an additional opportunity to participate in the public hearing and comment process."

Each of the public hearings will have a virtual option to participate as well.

This story has been updated.

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Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.